Survival Skills (Fantasia Fest 2020)

With the advent of streaming, physical media dropped off significantly. You of course still have collectors, but by and large, the ease of access meant people were no longer interested in having to put a disk or tape in. Getting off the couch? Yeah right. I have everything I need right here on this firestick, or console, or even right on the TV now.

 And yet, as always, nostalgia rears its head. Maybe it’s the flaws that made it feel like a real person made it, or a longing for what people view as a simpler time, but at the end of the day, one thing seems to be true. VHS is back, baby. Or at least, the aesthetic is.

It was true for VHYes, a very good movie, and it’s true for today’s very good movie as well, Survival Skills. Told through a “lost training tape” from the late 80s narrated by Stacy Kaech, all the artifacting of VHS is on display in Survival Skills, but not merely as a nostalgic flavoring – distortions and more all help tell the story, communicating emotions, turmoil and more with the audience without saying a word.

Survival Skills (Movie Review)
Kaech does a fantastic job in his small role as the Narrator

So, what is that story? Survival Skills follows Jim (Vayu O’Donnell), a rookie cop who gets in over his head when he tries to resolve a domestic violence case outside the law. O’Donnell does a great job of not only playing the robotic protagonist of a training video, he is excellent at creating the slow decline as well. The cracks start to appear, and the stress takes its toll as Jim becomes more distressed and eventually jaded.

It plays sort of like an Adult Swim special – the atmosphere of the movie starts cheerily enough, although something is clearly off. As it proceeds though, Jim’s steadfast upbeat nature takes on an ominous feeling, as his environment crumbles around him. He puts on blinders to cordon off his emotions, but at what cost? Corruption and a negative assessment of the community they’re supposed to protect are common issues in police forces. It’s what leads to police violence, and the blinders only serve to protect the officers, not the people.

The red tape that hamstrings officers who may have started of well-intentioned is also a focus in Survival Skills – when Jim does try to help, it not only backfires on him but leads to even more unforeseen consequences. So why try to help, Jim’s partner asks?

The issues the movie tackles are real. Look outside and see the protests so desperate to stop police brutality that thousands are willing to face risks both viral and retaliatory. Look at the statistics from the National Center for Women and Policing that says “…at least 40% of police officer families experience domestic violence, in contrast to 10% of families in the general population”.

Director Quinn Armstrong wrote this movie after working in a domestic violence shelter. Though the presentation may be purposely kitschy at times, the message is anything but funny. Rather, Survival Skills serves as a searing indictment of police attitudes and those blinders they put on as a survival skill, plus the fear and red-tape laden workplaces that would jade anyone and leads officers down the primrose path. This movie is extremely topical, and extremely good. You’re not going to want to miss it.

SURVIVAL SKILLS a Tragic Comedy That Produces 1990s Nostalgia