“How do I eject?” This is what Darius (Aubrey Plaza) says to her father (Jeff Garlin) after he has criticized her non-existent and/or wayward life plan established in the nicely economized opening to Safety Not Guaranteed. This question is meant to perhaps conjure the image of Darius ejecting from the jet fighter that is the world around her, but it could just as well conjure the image of, say, some sort of elaborate homemade time machine, not unlike the one being constructed in decidedly top-secret fashion by Kenneth Calloway (Mark Duplass). A time machine meant not just for escape, but to correct the mistakes that have made your life your own.
Darius is a Converse-clad wallflower who is used and abused as an intern for Seattle Magazine. But a writer there, Jeff (Jake Johnson, a fine turn in which he consistently hints at the nice guy buried beneath several layers of smarm), wants to write a profile of a Washington resident who has put out in an ad in a local paper asking for “Someone to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. I have only done this once before. Safety Not Guaranteed.” Thus, Jeff enlists Darius and another intern, Arnau (Karan Soni), the nice guy with the “pedophile glasses” for assistance.
They stake out Kenneth and track him down and after Jeff’s attempts at answering the ad inevitably fail it is Darius who takes up the cause. It is technically a Meet Cute between them, I suppose, at the grocery store where he is employed, and yet the aforementioned nicely economized opening establishes that his trust in her from the beginning is warranted and would make sense. She, in a way, plays a part in this Meet Cute and continues to do so throughout the movie. Until, of course, she isn’t, because inevitably she falls for him.
This Kenneth – kind of Dwight Schrute by way of Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind – is lovable in a way that someone like Darius would respond to. I would venture she’s the sort who has generally turned her back on society with what she would perceive (whether fairly or not) as their phoniness. And Kenneth, what with his thieving of lasers (arguably the most casual robbery in cinematic history) and fear of the Feds who may or may not actually be on his trail, is a genuine guy in his own possibly lunatic way.
And their relationship, wonderfully, almost improbably, avoids the typical twists. If the year to which you yearn to time travel is 2001 what subject do you immediately expect to be broached? No worries. It isn’t. And rather than resort to the standard reversal whereby Darius’s secret intent is unwittingly revealed to Kenneth, the screenplay is smart enough to allow her to divulge it on her own terms.
Meanwhile Jeff is revealed to have an ulterior motive – namely, wanting to re-connect with an ex-flame (Jenica Bergere). And he does, sort of, in a subplot that rather than being ungainly gradually shows itself to fit right into the quiet narrative director Colin Trevorrow and writer Derek Connolly are weaving.
Why does he track her down? Why does he offer a desperate plea? Because he wants to right what he perceives to be a wrong from his past. Kenneth wants to travel back in time to save a woman he loved and when pressed Darius says she wants to travel back in time to rescue her mother. More wrongs that need to be righted. But could traveling back in time really make that happen? Are all these wrongs the stepping stones on the way to what’s right?
In theory the end is wide open. What happened? Where did they go? Somewhere? Nowhere? Not the point. The point is that at this moment they are ignoring all the rights and wrongs of the past and even potential manipulations of it for the future and simply saying yes to now.