Charles (Evan Peters) is a seventeen-year-old boy who is picked on at school because of his crippled leg, and it has made him withdrawn, though he does like to express himself with his hobby of photography which he is growing very adept at. To make ends meet and because his father (Jason Beghe) is suffering from a debilitating illness that sees to it he is exhausted almost permanently, Charles has a job at the local truck stop, serving customers but one person who also works there in a very different capacity is Vicki (Juno Temple) who is a prostitute for the passing truckers. One night he notices her outside and her pimp, Skid (Kevin Alejandro) pulls up in his car and starts smacking her around because he thinks she has stolen from him, so Charles goes to the rescue...
Not every movie has to be War and Peace, and Safelight, the debut from writer and director Tony Aloupis, was a slight affair that could have disappeared completely if it hadn’t been for a nicely observed relationship between the two lead characters. Much of this was down to the performances, and though Peters and Temple were older than the people they were playing, they worked up an understanding for what they must have been going through in this sort of nineteen-seventies landscape of nowhere in particular. That era, vague as it was (there were no signifiers as to what year it was supposed to be set in), informed the style and the premise.
That relied on our sustained interest more in the characters than their story, indeed it was more comfortable with scenes of them testing one another to find out where they stood with each other and how far they could open up emotionally. Charles has closed himself down somewhat, presumably as a self-preservation mechanism, but he is young enough to be optimistic, however guardedly. Vicki on the other hand, in spite of just being a year older, has given in to the stunted life she has landed herself in, repeating every day - or night, really - over and over and not believing anything will improve for her, which explains why she takes a shine to her knight in shining armour when he steps in that night.
We get the impression Charles is the first person she has made an effort to connect with as a friend for some time, and when he asks her about her existence so far she has a tale of woe to tell that must be familiar to many in her situation: neglectful parent(s), abusive partner of her mother when the father leaves the family to fend for itself, and hooking up with entirely the wrong guy when it gets too much and she decides to leave, hence the unsettlingly easy descent into prostitution. Temple could play this sort of role in her sleep, but invested Vicki with a genuine melancholy that allows itself to lift when she's with Charles; watch her reaction when she is asked to go out dancing by his kindly boss Peg (Christine Lahti).
All that said, Safelight barely lasted over an hour, making it a case of just settling down to get to know the folks we were growing to like and it was pretty much all over. When that state of affairs was drawing to a close with Charles and Vicki having fallen out, or rather she ran away from him when things got too fraught with bad memories for her to continue the friendship that was tentatively progressing to romantic affection, then you could really have done with a bit more time to wrap things up with a degree more attention than Aloupis was willing to deliver. Perhaps he didn't want to wear out his welcome, perhaps he felt after fulfilling the Chekov's gun promise of an earlier scene he didn't have anywhere left to go, but maybe the maxim always leave them wanting more wasn't such a bad thing here. You did worry that Charles and Vicki would not find their lives working out (she hasn't become involved with hard drugs, though you feel it's a danger with someone that fragile), but the story ended open to possibilities it could be fine after all. Music by Joel P. West.