Found-footage films in the comedy genre are something of a collector’s item; those which attempt to inject some hard-hitting social commentary and genuine pathos alongside the spoof and satire all the more so. All the same, that’s exactly what this pigeonhole-defying directorial debut from Quinn Armstrong shoots for and, despite some jarring tonal inconsistencies and a slightly muddled message, largely scores with.
Survival Skills starts out as what appears to be a straight-up parody of the kind of workplace instructional videos that were so cringingly commonplace in the 1980s. A grizzled (and presumably retired) police chief-type, played by the imperious Stacy Keach, barks out at the audience from a fuzzy, interference-ridden VHS. We are the force’s newest cadets and Jim (Vayu O’Donnell) is to be our fresh-faced avatar for the duration of the video.
Pitched somewhere between The Sims and Police Academy at the outset, the film quickly veers off the well-trodden track of parody and into unchartered waters. For starters, Jim is more like an alien visiting Earth for the first time or a robotic simulation than a real human being and it’s soon clear that his eternally sunny disposition is unsuited to the kind of work demanded of him. Not to worry, though, because his very first call is a domestic violence case that’s guaranteed to rain all over his parade.
Despite the insistent instructions of Keach’s Narrator, Jim allows himself to become emotionally involved with the case victims to an inappropriate level. This causes him to lose track of which priorities are most important to him, as his profession and his principles collide in spectacular fashion. The message seems to be that even good eggs will soon start to stink in the cesspool that is the US police training infrastructure, although its clarity is confused by the adherence to the found-footage format and being frequently side-tracked into inane comic capers and skits, some of which are genuinely hilarious.
That tonal discord does impact the overall gravitas of the film, though possibly not its enjoyment factor. O’Donnell is excellent as the hapless rookie striving towards an impossible perfection and side characters provide depth and distraction in good measure, with his partner (Ericka Kreutz) and his girlfriend (Tyra Colar) both valuable for contrasting reasons: the former provides empathy, the latter light relief.
At times, the film does feel slightly apologist on behalf of a police force that is undergoing heavy fire from all corners at the moment, though Armstrong has made it clear that was not his intention at all. Indeed, it appears the director suffered a major crisis of conscience when the film’s release transpired to coincide with the killing of George Floyd, but he was eventually convinced to let it stand on the grounds that it could potentially add nuance to the ongoing debate surrounding police brutality in the States.
There’s certainly an argument to be made for that, and for all his good intentions, neither Jim nor the police force in general come out of Survival Skills smelling of roses. The climax is rather messily tied together, which fails to satisfy somewhat, as does the overarching moral of the piece, but there’s plenty here to admire and enjoy from a new filmmaking voice testing the waters of his craft with innovative ideas and gutsy direction.
Part of Fantasia Film Festival 2020