In our post-#MeToo world, Safe Spaces does its best to create a story from the point of view of a naïve teacher defending himself from abuse accusations. But does this work?
The film, which is directed and written by Daniel Schechter, focuses on Josh Cohn (Justin Long), a creative writing professor in New York City. A supposedly normal week in his life turns into him having to save his academic reputation. One of his students, who is a sexual assault survivor, tells the university that she felt unsafe in one of his classes because of a comment he made. This so happens to occur the same week that Josh’s grandmother (Lynn Cohen) is declared terminally ill with days left to live.
The character of Josh is excruciatingly clueless of the trauma that his student went through. Instead of quietly talk to his student, he spends the majority of the film complaining about how hard his life is (as a straight white cis man in the USA). This, combined with the fact that the majority of people in Josh’s life seem not to understand the importance of the situation, makes the ‘social justice warriors’, like the student, appear as the villains of the story – which obviously is not the case.
As solidarity to their friend, less and less students attend Josh’s lectures throughout the week. Josh is constantly told to ‘‘just apologize’’ to the student and let it go. But he is too proud to admit that he is wrong. He also refuses to take other people’s opinion, like his sister’s, into account because he knows that they will also tell him to apologize. This just makes the character even harder to relate to. The ‘problematic’ views of the students seem to prop up the film’s aim: to make us feel sorry for Josh.
However, Safe Spaces is bogged down by its inclusion of the stereotypical straight white male who thinks that the rest of the world is overreacting to a situation. Eventually, it is up to two students at the university, who invite Josh to join their Facebook group, to help him realise that his student might be the victim after all. But despite this, he still has a hard time actually apologizing to her, still not believing that he did anything wrong. By the end, where he is supposed to apologize to the student in the presence of his superior, he brings up his dying grandmother to ‘excuse’ his comment.
Despite all this, this film also has some beautiful scenes depicting family members spending their last moments with their matriarch. These scenes were some of my favourites in the film. The chemistry between Josh and his sister (Kate Berlant) was really convincing and entertaining to see play out. I also really liked the scene where the dad (Richard Schiff) finally came to visit his ex-mother-in-law, who he saw as his own mother. This was made even more moving thanks to Daniel Schechter’s screenplay. The dialogue here laid bare the characters’ histories and helped reflect the depth of their love for one another. Seeing a broken family come together like this almost makes you forget about the rest of the problematic themes in the film.
Daniel Schechter does a great job with balancing the two different sides of Josh’s life (the work life and the personal). Normally, films like this can feel like it should have been two separate films instead of one. But in Safe Spaces, the directing and editing has saved it from a similar fate. But due to the problematic themes and portrayals, I would have preferred it to only be about the family side of the story.
Although Safe Spaces portrays an interesting story from a new perspective, it misguidedly makes abuse survivors and woke young people seem like ‘the bad guys’ who are overreacting. Because of this, the actually good parts of it are forgotten. Its comedic aspect are also ruined by the problematic themes.
Safe Spaces is available on digital download from 7 December.
Words by Alice Sjöberg
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