Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Jul 18, 2019 5:04 pm 
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Plea for compassion - but what about taste?

A jejune but eager, up to date, and assertive "writing" teacher called Josh Cohen (Justin Long) who the festival blurb calls "a 38-year-old Brooklyn man-child" is an adjunct creative writing professor in New York City who tells a girl student in class to "write what hurts," which in this case turns out to be to describe a date where the boy asked her to let him jerk off on her butt and she did. The premise and scenes feel like the hip HBO anthology series "High Maintenance" except this is about a subject that's become trite of late: political correctness. While everybody uses foul language - college students in front of teachers in class, adult children in front of elders in a hospital - a writing student is criticized for including no people of color in a story that's about his Jewish summer camp. Well, there could be people of color at the camp, as employees. If an African American might be tricky, Josh suggests in private the student might try an Asian. In a smaller, seminar-style class, we learn from a militant African American woman student that for her, "hashtag" and "me too" take on a special, inferior meaning: she uses them to refer to a white male's feeble efforts to be politically correct.

The issue of "appropriate speech" is tossed around, as Josh is repeatedly hauled in to a faculty committee to rehash his discussion of the jack-off moment and the girl's objection that Josh's pressing the girl student to reveal it awakened painful memories of a sexually abusive experience of hers. Josh makes the situation worse for himself by refusing to apologize. Does anyone consider that, first of all, you can't really teach writing and second, Josh gives no evidence of knowing anything about this art? He is only seen, and then only briefly, discussing content, not the quality of writing itself. Can he put a sentence together? Does style matter to anybody? You can't teach people how to write, and you certainly can't teach them style.

But while the issue of the campus and the eggshells teachers walk on is a running theme, the screenplay spends more time on the squabbling New York Jewish family to which Josh belongs as the "boy" who can no longer justify acting so childish. It's not funny anymore, as his brother David (Michael Godere) tells him. Most the the movie is domestic drama about siblings and parents. A grandmother (Lynn Cohen) is in the hospital. First she wants to die. Then she rallies and declares her willingness to undergo radiation, use her walker, and forge ahead. Meanwhile under the tutelage of Josh's hellish mother Diane (Fran Drescher), the grandmother's, her mother's, property gets divided up or dispersed, with her still alive. She's not in a very safe space, evidently. Is this funny? Perhaps it's realistic, and grandma's not really going to last very long.

It's a pleasure to encounter Richard Schiff, a mainstay of the Aaron Sorkin series "The West Wing," as Josh's father. He makes his initially minor role seem important because his line delivery is caustic and felt. Instead of the flailing improvisational manner we get from some of the other cast members, Schiff makes his words pointed. Other characters, like his wife Sherry (Dana Eskelson), or their hostile little son Ben (Tyler Wladis), are reduced to gestures, and even Schiff can't save a schmaltzy death scene. They do show up en masse for grandma's final hours, though. This family fights like cats and dogs. It's not pretty - or funny - and that may make it hard to care about them; the added-on treacle doesn't help. This is not unusual, though, perhaps not really all that bad. But it reads like a quite conventional domestic drama that has gotten hashtag campus politics tacked onto it to make it seem more contemporary.

Safe Spaces debuted at Tribeca April 2019; it was Reviewed there by Alison Crist for Hollywood Reporter. It also showed at Monclair and Woods Hole, and was screened for this review as part of the SFJFF.
SFJFF Showtimes;
Saturday July 20, 2019 8:50 at the Castro
Sun., July 21 6:10 at CineArts; Wed. July 31 8:30 pm Albany
Sunday August 4, 6:30 p.m. San Rafael.

┬ęChris Knipp. Blog:

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