20th Aug2020

Fantasia 2020: ‘Survival Skills’ Review

by Phil Wheat

Stars: Vayu O’Donnell, Tyra Colar, Spencer Garrett, Stacy Keach, Ericka Kreutz | Written and Directed by Quinn Armstrong

Presented as a police training video from the 80s, Survival Skills places the audience in the position of police trainee, telling the story of rookie cop Jim Williams – the star of the training video and the perfect human being; perhaps too perfect… his idealistic, almost unemotional, naive, personality earning him the nickname of Robocop. Jim’s idealism gets the ire of his partner Allison (Ericka Kreutz) who warns Jim about trying to be the perfect cop to no avail. However Jim’s idealism is set to be broken when Jim and Allison answer a domestic violence call at the Jennings household.

You see, in his attempt to be the best he can be as a police officer, Jim can’t leave the case alone. Even when the omnipotent narrator, and presenter of this tale (Stacy Keach) tries to move Jim on, tries to change the scenes on this training video, pushing Jim into new cases, new situations. But Jim can’t leave the Jennings alone and that’s where the fourth wall starts to break down as the narrators anger at Jim’s inability to move on.

It’s almost farcical in how Keach’s narrator tries to move the training video forward, arguing that Jim’s not sticking to the script, cutting to another video whilst he sorts Jim out (it doesn’t work). It’s that meta take on the framework of the police trying video, the fact that we’re seeing it all fall apart in front our eyes that provides the laughs.

But it’s remarkable that the laughs are not at the expense of what is a very serious subject. Domestic violence isn’t funny and whilst Survival Skills is a whole heap of fun thanks to the performances off both Stacy Keach (it’s great watching Keach’s performance as his character explodes in frustration as to what is going on) and Vayu O’Donnell as Jim, there’s still a serious streak under-pinning the entire film. Jim wants to help Lauren and Leah Jennings, he wants to save them from a terrible situation. He wants to be a good cop; he wants to be the best he can be.

In fact it’s O’Donnell that is key to why Survival Skills‘ odd structure and playful fourth-wall breaking plotting work… His oh-so-earnest police officer is, honestly, too good to be true. From the get go O’Donnell’s performance gives Jim an edge; an edge that comes from O’Donnell’s portrayal as Jim being TOO impossibly good natured. You’re literally waiting for Jim to crack, waiting for him to breakdown and to see what the consequences of that will be. Yet at the same time you DON’T want that too happen, you want Jim to succeed at his job – its a beautiful dichotomy.

The very idea of creating a film that mirrors the video tapes of a now bygone era to tell a story is nothing new, after all there are plenty of genre films that have echoed the shot-on-video format of the late 80s/early 90s, however Survival Skills uses the concept in a remarkable fashion – utilising the tropes of video tape in a way that adds to the story rather than detracting. Hell, the film even uses tracking problems as a way to move throughout the story and provide fun visual cues as to what is happening.

On paper Survival Skills sounds like a high-concept comedy but instead it is a remarkably powerful look at domestic violence told through the lens of an old videotape, breaking the fourth wall in an incredibly humorous meta fashion. Bravo Quinn Armstrong, I can’t wait to see what comes next!

***** 5/5

Survival Skills screens as part of this years Fantasia Festival, which starts on August 20th.


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