￼I can’t remember a movie that more closely resembles a feature-length Twilight Zone episode than ￼￼Lorcan Finnegan’s new film “Vivarium”. For 97 minutes I could almost hear the faint voice of Rod Serling communicating his approval. Now if you’re unsure about the definition of vivarium, a quick Google search defines it as “an enclosure, container, or structure adapted or prepared for keeping animals under seminatural conditions for observation or study or as pets“. Fitting.
“Vivarium” is directed by Finnegan and based on a story he conceived with his screenwriter Garret Shanley. It’s basically science-fiction with a subtle horror bend, not to mention an unintended current day relevance. In a time where “self-quarantining” and “social distancing” has become a part of our everyday vernacular, a movie about being trapped at home takes on a whole new meaning.
Gemma (Imogene Poots) is an elementary school teacher and her boyfriend Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) a gardener/handyman. The two make for an fairly ordinary young couple. They have a good playful chemistry and both seem to be ready for the next phase of their lives together. Little did they know a suburban nightmare was right around the corner.
They visit the offices of a creepy real estate agent named Martin (a deliciously bizarre Jonathan Aris). He tells them of a brand new subdivision called Yonder and offers to lead them out to the development. Personally speaking, those few moments with Martin would be enough for me to take off running, but that wouldn’t be much of a movie. So Gemma and Tom hop into their Toyota hatchback and follow Martin outside of town to the sprawling gated community.
Immediately Yonder gives the impression of dull, stale uniformity. Every house is identical. Each has matching puke green exteriors. Each has the exact same well-manicured yard. Even every cloud in the sky are bright, cotton-puffed perfection. You would think that, along with the complete absence of any other living being, would be another reason for Gemma and Tom to turn around and speed off. Instead they arrive at house #9 and Martin begins giving them the tour.
Within minutes the couple realize Yonder is not the place for them, but before they can tell Martin he up and disappears. They hop in their car and head out but never find an exit. Just rows of the identical homes on identical streets that always end up at house #9. Trapped, out of gas, and out of options, Gemma and Tom have no choice but to stay at Yonder. They get by on mysterious boxes of bland, tasteless food left in front of their house. But one morning something else comes in a box – a baby boy with “Raise the child and be released” printed on the flap.
As it gets older the child brings new meaning to the term “creepy kid“. He ages much like a dog which makes judging time a challenge. He speaks in freaky off-key tones, often mimicking what he hears from his quasi-parents and lets out shrill screeches whenever he wants something. He adds a freaky presence to their prefab domesticity which becomes more suffocating with each passing day. From there “Vivarium” takes a slow-burn approach before eventually sticking its landing.
As critics we often gripe about movies telling us too much and not trusting us to figure things out for ourselves. But sometimes the opposite can be true. Sometimes you need more dialogue or conversations. “Vivarium” shows us little but tells us less. We’re left to gather for ourselves what the two main characters are feeling without being truly convinced. That may sound like criticism mumbo-jumbo but it gets to the heart of my lone yet significant gripe. You never get more than a surface level understanding of Gemma and Tom.
None of this is due to Poots and Eisenberg who worked together in last year’s “The Art of Self-Defense” and earlier in 2009’s “Solitary Man”. Both are good fits, especially Poots as her character is given a broader range of emotions to explore. Even as the film bangs on some familiar thematic drums (Suburbia is terrible. Marriage is hard. Raising a kid is even harder), the performances remain strong. I just wish the characters weren’t such hard nuts to crack. If more of the slow-burn had been spent cutting them open this good sci-fi thriller could have been something even better.