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FILM REVIEW: Safe Spaces

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Writer and Director: Daniel Schechter

Movie teachers are often an inspiration – think Michelle Pfeiffer and her class of disadvantaged young men in Dangerous Minds or Robin Williams filling his pupils with a love of literature and drama in Dead Poet’s Society. Lately though, we have seen Hugh Jackman pilfering funds in Bad Education and now Daniel Schechter enters much trickier territory as a young Adjunct Professor is accused of inappropriate and triggering behaviour in Safe Spaces, available for digital download from 7 December.

Creative writing tutor Josh encourages his students to be honest in their stories but one day he pushes a young girl to reveal a very private experience in the classroom. When complaints are filed with the headmistress and a class boycott ensues, Josh refuses to accept he did anything except facilitate an interesting discussion while even a family tragedy won’t prompt him to offer an apology.

Putting a male protagonist at the centre of a debate about the creation of safe spaces is a brave choice, especially as the tone of Schechter’s film doesn’t always view the complainant with sympathy and tries to apportion fault on both sides. The implication that an over-sensitive female student is unable to take a proportionate view of Josh’s comments is troubling, and even an eleventh-hour mediation scene fails to reconcile the confusing messages of Safe Spaces.

Also known as After Class in some territories, the mocking tone Schechter introduces when a separate female student confronts internalised misogyny and racism in class feels overridden by the need to make Josh sympathetic, often playing down the wider impacts of toxic behaviour. As a character, he is designed to be relatable and slightly hapless, swept-up in situations of his own making but well meaning in his intentions, wanting to inspire his students and persistently reaching out to errant members of his family in the various mini-storms that erupt around his beloved grandmother’s sick bed.

Yet, it is hard to escape from Josh’s poor behaviour and decision-making. He has a worrying relationship with a series of notably much younger girlfriends including his brother’s babysitter who he unceremoniously dumped and an Italian student of equivalent age to those he teaches and with whom he ‘enjoys’ violent sexual encounters. While Schechter works hard to keep the audience on Josh’s side, his attitude to the women in his life adds a sour note that is never fully resolved and Schechter seems uncertain whether to cast his leading man as a merely unlucky-in-love commitment-phobe or someone more predatory.

Josh, in many ways, is a character who cannot gauge the impact of his behaviour whether that be appropriate conversations to have in a classroom or accepting his grandmother’s illness, and Justin Long tries to make him generally amiable if a little cerebral. Whether the audience is expected to like him, agree with him or question the filters through which he sees the world is not something Long’s performance ever gets to grips with, even, when late in the film, Josh actively distances himself from two students who support his experience of white male oppression.

The family dynamic is the most interesting and Schechter has a good ear for natural conversation. Long creates a very credible connection with siblings Jackie (Kate Berlant) and David (Michael Godere) while the contentious relationship with father Jeff (Richard Schiff) and his new family is well played. But Josh spends much of the film burying his head in the sand and while the two halves of Safe Spaces don’t quite marry together, the moral ambiguities of the central character are impossible to ignore.

Released on 7 December 2020

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Troubling ambiguities

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The Reviews Hub London is under the editorship of John Roberts.The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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