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  Safe Spaces Open To Question
Year: 2019
Director: Daniel Schechter
Stars: Justin Long, Kate Berlant, Lynn Cohen, Michael Godere, Fran Drescher, Richard Schiff, Silvia Morigi, Becky Ann Baker, Samrat Chakrabarti, Nic Inglese, Camrus Johnson, Schann Mobley, Michael Hsu Rosen, Emily Ferguson, Dana Eskelson, Glo Tavarez
Genre: Comedy, DramaBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: Josh Cohn (Justin Long) is an adjunct professor at a New York university, tutoring in creative writing, and his big lesson for the discipline is to be as honest as possible: take inspiration from your real life, no matter how embarrassing, and you will never go wrong. To that end, he encourages one student to open up about one of her stories, which turns out to have an awkward sexual encounter that inspired it, something she shares with the class at Josh's insistence. In the spirit of honesty, nobody appears to be too bothered, and treats it with humour, but what he doesn't know is that one of the students feels deeply uncomfortable about it - and complains.

Honesty is the best policy, we're often told, but perhaps overshare is not, would possibly be the message imparted in Safe Spaces (also known as After Class), but there was a lot to unpick in writer and director Daniel Schechter's comedy drama, not least a whole second plot about Josh's family trying to cope with the impending death of his grandmother (Lynn Cohen). If this could have been an unruly collision of two separate storylines when really Schechter should have concentrated on one or the other, it didn't come across as that so much, since the chaotic nature of its protagonist's life was fairly well served by having him suffer two crises simultaneously.

Really, what this was telling you was that now, in these days of dedicated self-expression and presenting an online persona, everyone wants to be heard, and a lot of people think they have more right to be heard than others, which will only create conflict, anger and ultimately, discord. Josh thought he was helping that self-expression along as a good thing, but what if he has gone too far? Does the aggrieved student have a point? You could argue that even if she was not an abuse survivor, which she is, she did not need to hear sexually explicit confessions while in class, there is a time and a place for that and Josh's decision-making looks suspect if he was convinced he was doing right.

Then again, have people just become too sensitive? Not to others' feelings, but their own, roping in those others to have surrogate emotions to bolster their self-worth as compassionate? Just because you're a white, straight male who feels like he should be sticking up for the non-white, non-straight and non-male in the world, does this mean you have a better right to do so as an advocate for them when they can more easily tell their stories themselves? Should every item of fiction include as many different types of person as can be fit into a narrative so that nobody feels left out, or is this merely cynical marketing that assumes nobody can understand or relate to a medium if there's no one in it who resembles them closely? Isn't that patronising at best and closing off empathy at worst? Is that what Josh, who has his privileges, is really guilty of?

Actually, Schechter threw so much at the wall of social justice that not everything stuck, and often it seemed he had neglected the comedy aspect in favour of provocation. That said, it was very well acted, the cast given plenty to get their teeth into, and we can recognise Josh is not a villain because he gets inappropriate at times: that can be his sense of humour, and that can backfire. What appeared to be an attack on the Millennials was more subtle than that, despite one of the takeaways being that nobody owns the libs quite as well as the libs themselves. There was genuine worry here, that a generation taught to take care of those they share the planet with had actually been taught to turn aggressively on anyone who failed to conform, be that in reactionary or accidental style, and apologies would only sound ever more hollow the further this went on. If Grandma's backstory of fleeing the Nazis was overdoing it, it was a point that should something as cataclysmic as a World War happen again, the mass hatred was certainly there to stoke it. In many ways, a troubling film, even if it was very funny in places: lessons, no matter what we were told, had not been learned. Music by Aaron Esposito (fine use of brass bands).

[Safe Spaces will be available on Digital Download from 7th December 2020.]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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