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A young creative writing lecturer in New York listens impatiently to a young woman reading her story aloud in class: a so-so piece about a date. He gets her to admit in front of the other students that this is based on an actual experience in her life and there must be a more interesting, true story behind her insipid fiction that she is not revealing. Shyly, nervously, the young woman agrees. He impulsively demands that she tell everyone what it is. She shakes her head, blushes and looks down. But the professor won’t take no for an answer – and finally, not wanting to be artistically dishonest or a bad student, the woman explains that she took her date back to her place where he made a bizarre and humiliating sexual demand. But everyone realises it was less humiliating than what the professor is now making her go through in public.
This is the key event that begins Safe Spaces, which turns out to be an even-tempered indie comedy, five parts late Woody Allen to one part 90s-period David Mamet. The perennially boyish and likable Justin Long, famed for his goofy performances in comedies such as Dodgeball (2004) and Accepted (2006) plays Josh Cohn, the lecturer in question – who is very new to and very naive about academe and student politics, having only taken the job because his own creative writing career is flatlining. He has a complex relationship situation, and his adored grandmother Agatha (a warm performance from Lynn Cohen who, sadly, died earlier this year) is seriously ill in hospital.
Josh’s spiky situation in class is juxtaposed with his family life which, no matter how theoretically painful, is conceived on lenient emotional terms that balance out his Mametian nightmare at work, and steer the film away from harsh satire. This is the backstory that will keep Josh relatable, despite the trouble his inappropriate behaviour has caused in class. He is asked, inevitably, to apologise – which he refuses to do – and then makes things worse by making a clumsy approach in private with his outspoken sister in tow. At least nobody archly uses the word “woke” in inverted commas (the way “political correctness” was used in a previous generation).
There are many incidental characters in this film, and it is a mark of writer-director Daniel Schechter’s surefootedness that he keeps all these balls in the air reasonably adroitly. There is a very good performance from the veteran character actor and indie stalwart Richard Schiff (Toby Ziegler from TV’s The West Wing), playing Josh’s embattled father, Jeff, who has become almost paralysed with competing demands from his old and new families.
Safe Spaces rattles along amiably, concluding its tale of campus uproar in a way that exonerates everyone, leaving the way clear for the family storyline to underline Josh’s essential likability. The movie is clearly taken from scenarios in Daniel Schechter’s life. What would happen if he was confronted by someone like Josh, who tactlessly demanded to know the banal, unsympathetic or uncinematic truth behind it all?
• Safe Spaces is available on digital formats.
Source: The Guardian
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