Safety Not Guaranteed ★★★

2012 is looking to be a great year for talents making their first features. Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild) and Nicholas Jarecki (Arbitrage) have already impressed me in particular, and now Safety Not Guaranteed has not one but two artists getting their name out there for the first time. Director Colin Trevorrow and writer Derek Connolly's first picture is a winning little independent gem that feels right out of the Sundance mold, but breathes with a spirit that sets itself apart.

A lot of these kind of Sundance oddball comedies can venture way too far into the quirk that they threaten to lose their audience, or make the eventual last act switch into more dramatic territory feel awkward and out of place. Safety Not Guaranteed avoids all of these pitfalls by taking care to ensure that it is first and foremost a character piece with people that are easy to genuinely have an investment in, fleshed out by a terrific ensemble of talented actors. The centerpiece of the whole work is Connolly's unique and expertly unraveling script, but it wouldn't come off nearly as well if he didn't have such a skilled cast on screen to bring out his words.

Aubrey Plaza, Jake Johnson and Karan Soni play a trio of journalists who head out on a road trip to seek and investigate a man who places an ad looking for a partner to travel back in time with him. This mysterious, possibly disturbed seeker is played by the ever-impressive multi-hyphenate Mark Duplass, who forgoes his many other talents (writer, director) to focus purely on the acting in this one. Plaza's style is familiar to anyone who watches her on Parks and Recreation (or has seen her in any film, interview or talk-show appearance), but here she is able to flesh out that persona into something more human and fragile. Her dry, cynical demeanor is hiding a pain inside, a longing for something that she may not even be aware she needs in her life.

Ultimately Safety Not Guaranteed is about just that, as the investigation leads to all of the main characters achieving a sense of self-realization as to who they are and what they're looking for. The subplots with Johnson and Soni sometimes feel like they run on too long and don't have the kind of intrigue that exists in the scenes with Plaza and Duplass, but the actors are able to make it work, particularly Johnson who plays his character on just the right side of smug arrogance to be compelling without annoying. It's Plaza and Duplass who shine the most though, as their growing dynamic eventually leads to a surprising emotional strength that I found very tugging.

Connolly gives these characters a sincerity that never judges them, but rather instills the whole picture with a hear that's not usually common in these kind of quirky little pictures. Safety Not Guaranteed never plays itself too twee for the appeal to wear off, and is instead driven by a warmth that makes it easy to find something to care for and relate to in these characters. It all builds to one of the many endings of recent years that could leave you talking, an ambiguous moment that throws everyone for a wild loop. Safety Not Guaranteed is an enjoyable picture with a lot of heart, and shows great promise from many of those responsible for its success.