Survival Skills is screening as part of the 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival
Quinn Armstrong’s Survival Skills has plenty of contemporaries. This faux police training video has the same old media affection, anachronistic diegetic reality, and cringe comedy of the late night comedy of Tim & Eric, viral alt comedy videos like Too Many Cooks, and a handful of other indie films on the festival rotation in recent years. Survival Skills deviates enough from these by presenting a less overtly comic take on the postmodern pastiche of the VHS tape aesthetic. But this tone is also the major detracting feature of the film.
The film follows smiley Jim (Vayu O’Donnell) on his first day as part of the Middletown police department. The trials and training he undergoes is part of a training video, but his actions start deviating from the script of what the video is going for.
Given this is a fictional police training video, it is difficult to divorce the proceedings of the film from current real-world concerns involving policing in the United States. This makes the lo-fi film appear all the uglier. I tried to separate the film from current events, which are out of the filmmaker’s control and seemingly not part of the creative intent, but it became increasingly difficult to do so as the tone of the film continued down a tightrope on which it just cannot balance.
The truth is, there is wiggle room in Survival Skills to make a fairly trenchant commentary on how police training reinforces a specific culture. You see it in the looming portraits of Ronald Reagan, a reminder of the tough on crime mentality from which training videos of this ilk sprang. You definitely see it in a segment about knife tactics, which ends with the idealistic, almost always smiling protagonist Jim violently stabbing an invisible person with a fiendish grin on his face.
But any political messaging that this film may be trying to make is consistently undercut by the desire for metatextual humor. Broad moments of comedy interrupt the emotional journey of Jim, putting the film off-balance: an entire scene about Satanic Panic with a comic misdirection, a runner about a robotic housewife, one scene which breaks the reality of the training video idea by using a sitcom laugh track. None of this really works within a film that is otherwise going for a more emotional gut-punch by following an idealistic new cop who slowly deflates over the course of his first few days on the force. Adding politics on top of all of this is simply too much weight to place on an 88-minute anti-comic drama.
This is not to say there isn’t something worthwhile in Survival Skills. This type of film has an audience (I thought I was part of that audience, but I came out disappointed). The lead performance from O’Donnell is committed and engaging, and Stacy Keach’s entirely sedentary performance is surprisingly dynamic. There are ideas in this worth exploring, which fill out this metatextual environment well, but it does not all come together into a coherent whole.
Survival Skills: C+