Fantasia Review: ‘Survival Skills’ is way more than just a weird VHS nostalgia trip

There are many ways a film might examine some aspects of our society. Whether drama, comedy, horror, or science fiction, each genre provides a different lens for us to take a closer look at what and who we are. Satire is if used correctly, maybe the most powerful of these lenses. By taking some subject and twisting it to an extreme position, we can expose some of the absurdity of the world we live in.

Survival Skills is one of those movies. Taking the form of a lost 1980s police training tape, it follows Jim (Vayu O’Donnell), a childlike rookie police officer going through his first day. Things take a turn, though when the narrator (Stacy Keach) is walking him through a domestic violence call, and he begins to disagree with proper procedure.

All Jim wants to do, in his naïveté, is help. He wants to get the woman out of danger, but everything from his cynical partner to the overworked social programs stands in his way.

It would be easy to write Survival Skills off as a cheap nostalgia bid or a wacky experiment, and it would have been easy for it just to be that. Still, writer and director Quinn Armstrong’s script takes the story to some uncomfortably dark places and pits Jim’s desire to help against, well, our society and all the way it fails the people that it tries to protect.

It’s a real feat that this film will make you feel sympathy for Jim while also watching the systems of modern policing turn him slowly into the same kind of complacent and cynical monster that we’ve been seeing on TV for the past several months.

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