‘Safer at Home’ Review: Friends Don’t Let Friends Take Molly on Zoom

One of the sleeper hits of the shutdown last year was Rob Savage’s British horror “Host,” a very short (just under an hour) and sweetly scary tale of friends whose weekly Zoom call during COVID quarantine gets crashed by an unwelcome supernatural visitor. It was, however, bound to be the exception which proved a preexisting rule: that found-footage thrillers remain a tapped-out genre, no matter if one in every 20 or so manages to squeeze some new life from the form.

Unfortunately, we’re likely to get a lot more in the mode of “Safer at Home,” which likewise hinges on friends video-conferencing during shutdown. Will Wernick’s film not only fails to use that format in clever or suspenseful ways, it blows the basics of maintaining plausibility and viewer interest. You have to admire filmmakers finding ways to keep plugging away within pandemic restrictions. But not every story is suited for Zoom-style presentation, and this derivative, uninspired one only underlines the strain in being fit to a presentational framework that does neither actors nor audience any favors. Vertical Entertainment is releasing to available U.S./Canadian theaters, VOD and digital on Feb. 26.

The director’s last two features (2017’s “Escape Room” — the first of a half dozen features to date with that title — then last year’s “No Escape”) were both about annoying millennial characters trapped in recreational “games” that turned out to be deadly serious in a vaguely “Saw”-like way. Here the annoying BFFs are duly stuck at home — or rather, in homes scattered across the country. An opening montage projects a worst-case-scenario spiraling from Trump’s initial pandemic negligence to multiple new COVID strains, curfews and societal chaos, with more than 30 million Americans dead from the virus by mid-2022.

Nonetheless, it is Evan’s (Dan J. Johnson) birthday, so his pals and their partners are celebrating as best they can. His own longterm live-in girlfriend Jen (Jocelyn Hudon) has a pregnancy-test-related surprise she’s saving to tell him about later, though she can’t resist first informing Austinite Harper (Alisa Allapach), the only single here. The others are New York gay couple Ben (Adwin Brown) and Liam (Daniel Robaire); and in L.A. (like Evan), Oliver (Michael Kupisk) and his new squeeze Mia (Emma Lahana), who’s recently escaped an abusive relationship. It’s Ollie who has shipped everyone packages of party favors including some Ecstasy, which (after overcoming resistance from skittish Ben) everyone doses on.

The warm and fuzzies fast overwhelm him and Mia, to a degree somewhat inappropriate for semi-public consumption. But the fear that these drugs are not exactly as advertised soon arises as the others instead experience paranoia, anxiety and anger. Indeed, one couple starts having a screaming fight that results in grievous harm — accidentally so, but since not everyone (or anyone, actually) was paying close attention to their screen at the time, the specter of criminal guilt arises.

However, we viewers know it was an accident, as does the surviving squabbler. Ergo “Safer at Home” immediately loses credibility when the panicked participants, most of whom have known each other half their 30-ish lives, fail to call police (or an ambulance). Instead, they favor the not-quite-perp going on the lam. That turns “Safer at Home” into an exceedingly awkward action movie where one character runs around filming himself with his cellphone (even while fleeing police), another drives around in pursuit talking to his laptop, and the rest try to maintain a desperate intensity as they stare at their monitors.

Footchases, driving scenes and characters reduced to endless reaction shots are three things that do not work very well in a “found footage” context, yet get punishingly leaned on here. Add to that the numerous logic gaps peppering Wernick and Liz Bozonelis’ screenplay, plus a twist ending sure to elicit groans of exasperated disbelief, and there is something to irk almost any viewer.

The actors do as well as they can, though our first impression of the dramatis personae is that they have been conceived and cast to check off a diversity list, with way too little attention paid to conveying just why these people would actually be friends. (The gay couple in particular are grating old-school stereotypes, which further taints the presumed good intentions of inclusivity.)

Also rather off-putting is the gloss of political commentary, which already feels dated since adults have been put in charge again. Beginning and ending with Trump footage, the film presupposes an endless COVID catastrophe that now seems cynically wrong-headed (at least one hopes) as indictment. Not least of “Safer at Home’s” bad decisions is fading out on a would-be poignant flashback to our protagonists toasting the nation’s “re-opening” when our ex-POTUS announced the crisis “over” after a few months. But while they may be indifferently developed characters, they don’t seem like fools — and who else believed it was really “over” last fall, with contagion and death stats still climbing? Vexing for different reasons is the movie’s use of the kind of incident that generated the Black Lives Matter movement, simply because it’s too serious an issue to be shoehorned into an implausible melodrama like this without it seeming trivialized.

Hamstrung by its format, and eventually rather dull as a result, “Safer at Home” is nonetheless edited as dextrously as can be managed by Sean Aylward, who plays a little fast-and-loose with the pretense that we’re seeing things happen in “real time.” Genevieve Vincent’s original score is also competent. But both their efforts, like everyone’s here, can only do so much to salvage weak material whose flaws are only emphasized by the video-conference-call gimmick.

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