J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Safelight: Truck Stop Love

Young Charles might have a future in photography. Or maybe he will just continue being miserable and feeling sorry for himself.  Frankly, there is no reason to care either way at any point during Tony Aloupis’s exercise in small town misery titled Safelight (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New Jersey.

Charles was physically born an underdog—and life has only gotten worse. His mother absconded during his infancy, his supportive father is dying of cancer, and his older brother was killed in Vietnam. The latter misfortune is all very sad, but it is about the only sign post to alert us Safelight is a 1970s period piece. When not walking barefoot to school for miles and miles, uphill both ways, Charles works at the truck stop owned by the tough-talking soft-hearted Peg. That is where he met Vicki. She also works at the truck stop, but not for Peg, if you catch the drift.

One fateful night Charles somehow manages to intercede while her pimp Skid is beating her up. The term pimp might imply too much structure. Thug is probably more accurate. Regardless, Charles broke the abusive mood, so Vicki is grateful. In fact, they start ambiguously hanging. She even drives him about on weekends so he can work on his entry for the school photography competition. He is shooting the lighthouses of coastal California, which will be a surefire winner if the contest is sponsored by a motel with empty walls.

Naturally, conflict between Charles and Skid is inevitable (but maybe not with his pals, Skitter and Collide). The poor kid is also probably in for all sorts of heartache involving his Pa and the damaged on the inside Vicki. In fact, you can probably diagram Safelight pretty accurately without actually seeing it.

The best things about Safelight are the crafty veterans who make the best of problematic script. Christine Lahti is always a breath of fresh air as Peg, while Jason Beghe gives the film the sort of tragic heft and maturity it doesn’t really deserve. Beghe endured a stint in the Church of Scientology and lived to tell Alex Gibney about it in Going Clear, so he should be able to survive Safelight as well. As for the youngsters, they obviously were not feeling it—and neither will viewers.

You have to give Beghe credit for telling it straight, which is why it is a bummer we can’t be more enthusiastic about his latest film. It just sort of sits there on the screen in an utterly unexceptional kind of way. Not recommended (and hardly remembered from two nights ago), Safelight opens this Friday (7/17) at the AMC New Brunswick in New Jersey.