Fantasia 2020: “Survival Skills” blurs the thin blue line between fiction and reality

Survival Skills Survival Skills (Fantasia 2020)

Quinn Armstrong’s debut is a clever riff on ’80s police training videos that sneaks in some earnest reflection on domestic violence.

(This review is part of our coverage of the 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival.)

I’ll never forget the first time I watched Surviving Edged Weapons, one of the more unique artifacts of found-footage cult entertainment. Ostensibly, it’s an ’80s police training video, created to teach police officers how to navigate a perp with a knife. But it’s filmed more like an entry in the Death Wish series, featuring dramatic reenactments and realistic gore effects interspersed with real footage of grisly knife wounds and Reagan-era philosophizing about “our liberal courts.” Writer/director Quinn Armstrong has clearly modeled his debut film, Survival Skills, after that kind of copaganda. But in satirizing the white-washed public image of the police these videos create, Armstrong uses the aesthetic format as a springboard for sensitive discussions of domestic violence as well.

As with a lot of other tapecore riffs like this (VHYes and the like), Survival Skills styles itself like an old worn-out VHS, with tracking static and timecodes and all. After a brief primer by our gruff narrator (Stacy Keach) on the fictional idyll of Middletown (its demographics are “89% white”), he introduces us to Officer Jim Williams (Vayu O’Donnell), a rookie cop in his first day on the job. He’s a chipper, pleasant do-gooder crafted from whole cloth and plopped into a nice suburban home with a doting wife (Tyra Colar) — the very model of a peace officer.

But Jim quickly involves himself in a complicated domestic violence situation involving a woman named Lauren (Madeleine Anderson), her daughter Leah (Emily Chisholm), and their volatile husband Mark (Bradford Farwell). It’s not long before he begins to see the frustrating limitations of the black-and-white view his training takes towards this situation.

Survival Skills
Survival Skills (Fantasia 2020)

The VHS training-film aesthetic offers plenty of opportunities for Armstrong to employ some inventive, pitch-black satire about American law enforcement, and the divide between how they perceive their work and how the public receives it. Middletown’s obviously the kind of ’50s suburbia Trump supporters imagine when they hear “Make America Great Again,” a place that treats “commies” and protestors with utter disdain. It’s droll fun to see the sly way these values come out in Armstrong’s presentation. Chipper synth music and chunky early-90s CG slather a thick layer of innocuous charm onto Jim’s work and Keach’s narrative intentions, projecting a false sense of authority Armstrong can slowly but surely chip away at.

Central to this is O’Donnell’s deliberately robotic turn as Officer Jim, the prototypical ‘good cop’ slowly undone by the frustrations of the job. In the opening acts, Jim is a cipher for the kind of ideal officer the presumed audience for this tape — rookie cops — should be (other characters call him “RoboCop”). But as the difficulties of the job disrupt Jim’s born-yesterday innocence, he starts to rebel against the confines of the film itself.

Suddenly, Survival Skills turns into a metatextual struggle for the trajectory of the story between Keach’s god-like narrator and a protagonist who refuses to stick to the script. It’s these touches of The Truman Show and Pleasantville that make Survival Skills‘ structural satire work so well.

The VHS training-film aesthetic offers plenty of opportunities for Armstrong to employ some inventive, pitch-black satire about American law enforcement.

One of Survival Skills‘ few flaws is a matter of timing more than anything. In a world where we’re calling into question the very concept of the police as a peacekeeping force, it’s odd to turn our attention to domestic violence when the killing of unarmed Black citizens is our biggest priority. What’s more, Jim’s desire to go loose-cannon and take the law into his own hands complicates his sense of relatability.

But that’s not the fault of Armstrong or the film. If anything, Survival Skills highlights another strong case for police abolition: cops don’t have the training to adequately handle domestic violence cases, so why should they be the ones sent out to do it? (Especially given the alarming rates of domestic violence perpetrated by police officers themselves.) Armstrong did work in domestic violence shelters, and he based his original 2017 short on a lot of that work. When it sits down to reckon with Lauren and Leah’s struggle, and how helpless Jim is to get them out of their situation, it’s genuinely, to forgive the pun, arresting.

Even within this inadvertent tone-deafness of a cultural moment, there’s a great deal to learn (and admire) about what Armstrong does here. The instructional-video aesthetic is a brilliant platform on which to juxtapose the respectability politics of police officers with the grim realities of their profession; moments, when we interact with a gung-ho self-defense instructor or see glimmers of Keach’s own malice, make clear that Jim is a sunny ideal that no officer (not even Jim himself) can match. Among the clever riffs on cheesy training videos lies a genuinely disquieting undercurrent of menace, grim realities sneaking in among the deafening tape-hiss of Survival Skills‘ presentation. That’s an environment for inventive satire.

Survival Skills Trailer:

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