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D: Tony Aloupis / 83m

Cast: Evan Peters, Juno Temple, Christine Lahti, Kevin Alejandro, Jason Beghe, Ariel Winter, Will Peltz, Don Stark, Joel Gretsch, Ever Carradine, Meaghan Martin, Gigi Rice

California, the Seventies. Charles (Peters) is seventeen, attends high school, has an absent mother, a deceased older brother, a seriously ill father (Beghe), legs that cause him difficulty in walking, and a job working in the diner at a truck stop. One night he sees a teenage girl named Vicki (Temple) accosted by a man called Skid (Alejandro). Charles intervenes and threatens Skid with a baseball bat. Skid is amused by Charles’s attitude and drives off. Over the next few nights, Vicki – who is a prostitute – comes into the diner for coffee, and she and Charles begin a fledgling relationship.

Meanwhile, Charles decides to enter a school photography competition. For his theme he picks the lighthouses of the California coast but his disability stops him from driving. However, when he mentions his idea to Vicki she volunteers to drive him to each location. With each successive trip they grow a little bit closer, and Charles introduces Vicki to his father and his boss at the diner, Peg (Lahti). She impresses them, so much so that Peg invites Vicki and Charles to a girls’ night at a local bar. They dance together for the first time, and later, Vicki takes Charles back to the hotel room where she lives (and which Skid, who’s her pimp, doesn’t know about).

Some time later, Charles persuades Vicki to visit her estranged family: mother Lois (Carradine), and younger sisters Kate (Winter) and Sharon (Martin). The visit doesn’t go as well as Charles had hoped, with recriminations on both sides, and it leads to Vicki disappearing. When Skid begins asking Charles if he’s seen her, he can honestly say no, but Skid makes it clear he’ll find her, no matter what. Charles completes his entry for the photography competition, and goes back to his regular life at the truck stop. It’s when Skid finally does locate Vicki that things take a desperate turn, one that will either bond them together forever, or part them irrevocably.

Safelight - scene

Slow moving but character driven, Safelight is a contemplative look at how two teenagers (Vicki is eighteen) form a relationship while viewing themselves as outsiders, Charles because of his physical condition, Vicki because of her occupation. It’s an often wistful tale, with sterling performances from Peters and Temple, and assured writing and direction from Aloupis.

But for every positive footstep the movie makes there’s an annoying misstep – sometimes in the very next scene – as Aloupis tries to explore aspects of both lead characters’ lives that don’t immediately add to the central storyline or overall plot. A case in point is the harassment Charles receives at the hands of three bullies. It serves to highlight just how difficult his life is, and the problems he has to face, but it all seems contrived and unnecessary, as if having legs that don’t work properly isn’t enough. It also leads to a scene where Vicki arrives in the nick of time and scares off the bullies with a handgun that she conveniently has in her bag – as if that’s nothing more than the writer/director adding in a bit of wish fulfilment to perk up the audience.

Vicki’s visit to her family is another area in which the script dares to travel where it has no need to go. By the time of the visit, Vicki has already told Charles about her upbringing, and her mother’s abusive boyfriend, so any information we glean has been rendered redundant, and the whole thing isn’t helped by an awkwardly judged performance by Rice as the mother doing her best not to feel guilty at failing to protect her daughter. It leads to the necessary break up of Charles and Vicki, but still it seems like an afterthought in the scriptwriting process.

Thankfully, these missteps don’t hurt the bulk of the (short) running time, but they do seem like intruders, disrupting the movie’s flow and causing the viewer to stop short. Away from these errors of judgment, Apoulis is on firmer ground when dealing with the nascent relationship between Charles and Vicki, and garnering the aforementioned sterling performances from his leads, and in particular, from Alejandro. Where Peters gives Charles a diffidence and lack of confidence that makes him immediately sympathetic, Temple takes Vicki in the opposite direction, making her too worldly-wise yet with a streak of tough vulnerability that she can drawn on when needed. The two characters complement each other, and Peters and Temple display a winning chemistry. At odds with their more structured performances, Alejandro is a sweaty, broiling, unpredictable Skid, his manic movements and unnerving laughter leaving the viewer uncertain as to what he’s going to do next (it sometimes feels as if even Alejandro didn’t know). The movie also picks up some energy when he’s on screen, a valuable counterpoint to the considered perspective offered by Peters and Temple.

At its heart, of course, the movie is an unconventional love story, and it’s here that it’s at its most effective. While the idea of two professed outsiders finding common ground isn’t unusual in the movies, what Aloupis has done is to make a virtue of Charles’ emotional reticence, and Vicki’s need to be loved for herself and not just her body (which leads to an uncomfortable and telling moment in Vicki’s motel room). With their relationship falling into place so neatly and plausibly, Aloupis moves the supporting characters around with ease, eliciting strong performances from Lahti and Beghe, and showing a flair for spare, unshowy dialogue. The desert landscapes and coastal cliffs are beautifully photographed by DoP Gavin Kelly, and Charles’s photographs of the lighthouses and Vicki are rendered in wonderful black and white by Darrell Lloyd, making the movie a visual treat at times and surprisingly poetic.

Rating: 7/10 – some narrative flaws stop Safelight from being more accomplished, but there’s lots to enjoy here, from the performances to the writing, and all backed by an evocative visual style that keeps the drama from becoming too gloomy; while some elements may be predictable to seasoned viewers it’s Apoulis’ approach to the material that keeps it interesting.