Film Review: Safelight

Two lost teenagers find each other in a dead-end town in this logy melodrama about hope, resilience and being true to yourself.
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Skinny, soft-spoken 17-year-old Charles (Evan Peters of X-Men: Days of Future Past and “American Horror Story”) is a born outsider stuck in a small, dusty inland California town populated largely by testosterone-poisoned jerks whose idea of fun is messing with cars, girls and the kid who walks with a limp. He feels like an alien and works after school at the truck-stop convenience store owned by spunky Peg (Christine Lahti), a good-hearted redhead who flirts up a storm but doesn't put out. Charles lives with his terminally ill father, Eric (Jason Beghe), in a small house where the absence of his brother, Kevin, who died in Vietnam, is never far from mind, and loses himself in photography (the title Safelight refers to the red darkroom light that doesn't ruin developing images), for which everyone agrees he has a real knack.

The late-night customers are mostly transients, but fresh-faced prostitute Vicki (Juno Temple of Killer Joe), who serves truckers, quickly becomes a regular. She and Charles meet whatever the opposite of cute is when he steps in one night with a baseball bat–the kind every lonely convenience store has under the counter–because her pimp/boyfriend, Skid (Kevin Alejandro), is about to rape her in the parking lot for some trumped-up boyfriend/pimp reason. Each recognizes something lost and restless in the other, something that prompts him to take her up on her offer to drive him to various coastal locations so he can take pictures of lighthouses–you know, beacons–with his late brother's camera (no heavy symbolism there) for a school contest.

The many complications that ensue are, sadly, more often than not thoroughly predictable, and the best efforts of a talented cast can't do much about it because in the end Temple is stuck playing an abused whore with a heart of gold and Peters is trapped in the sweet-guy-who'll-come-into-his-own-in-college zone. There's just not much room to work with clichés like that, and it's not only the non-romantics leads who struggle. Peg is sassy but wise, Eric is strong but doomed, Skid is a broken bully, and Peg's suitor, Jack (Don Stark), wraps his good soul in tomfoolery. Even the truck stop is saddled with a Gas-Food-Lodging sign twinkling out front.

Oh, and it's set in the ’70s, for no discernable reason except so Charles' brother can be a casualty of war, and there's always a war somewhere to shatter families and dreams. That said, the film's depiction of the era is an unusually accurate one: The cars and clothes and hairstyles look used and lived, rather than like an art director's fever dream of four-wheeled aircraft carriers, mondo macramé, Farrah flips and polyester everything. That bit of authenticity is welcome amid the formulaic drama.

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