Film

Review: A Dystopian Trip to Adulthood in Weirdly Unnerving Vivarium

While I’ve never been a fan of weird for weirdness’s sake, I do tend to enjoy it when there’s a touch of mischief—or even a dark streak—running through it. In director Lorcan Finnegan’s (Without Name) Vivarium (from a script by Garret Shanley), a young couple—Imogen Poots as Gemma and Jesse Eisenberg as Tom—in London have been casually looking for the perfect home. They stumble into a real estate agent selling units in a community called Yonder, and based on how playful this couple is, it’s clear this is a big step into their turning into full-fledged adults. So you know something bad is going to happen.

vivarium

Image courtesy of Saban Films

The agent in the office is Martin (Jonathan Aris), and we can sense something is off with him right away. His smile is a bit too broad, he occasionally repeats what others say, not so much like he’s mocking them, but like he’s trying on the words to figure out what they mean and how they sound coming out of his own mouth. But he still manages to charm the couple into taking a drive to Yonder, located not that far from London but far enough to be something of an escape. In other words, it’s unclear where Yonder actually is, but every house looks exactly the same and they all look empty, despite Martin’s claims that the available units are disappearing quickly.

While the couple is wandering through the home, Martin vanishes, leaving them alone and confused. But not as confused as they get when they hop in their car and try to leave Yonder. Somehow, no matter which way they drive, they end back at the exact same house. Their car even runs out of gas right outside the front door. So they stay the night in the fully furnished place, and when they awake, there is a box of supplies waiting outside on the street—mostly food that has a surprisingly bland taste, like something that’s just trying to taste like the food it looks like.

The production design of Vivarium is breathtaking and unnerving all at once. The sky is a perfect blue with puffy clouds that don’t look like any other shape but cloud shape, and they never move in the sky. I’m sure the budget for this movie was modest, but the few effects on display are seamless and impressive. Gemma and Tom are now trapped in a version of adulthood that is brutally repetitive, bland and the epitome of sameness, but nothing has quite prepared them for the next delivery that arrives at their door: a newborn, whom they are instructed via note that they must raise in order to be allowed to leave this hell.

The child grows quickly, first into a boy (the colossally creepy Senan Jennings), who is a demanding monster in ways that are difficult to explain. He emits a piercing, constant scream until he gets what he want (usually food); he asks constant questions that are less about seeking information about the world and more about human behavior and why his parents are always so miserable; and he mimics their words and voice in such a way that he sounds like a grown-up trapped in a kid’s body. You will cringe every time he opens his mouth, but he’s one of our only clues as to what exactly is going on in Yonder.

Not surprisingly, Gemma and Tom grow distant from each other. Tom becomes obsessed with digging a hole in the front yard that’s made up of a substance that is part dirt and part something less organic. Digging occupies all of his time to the point where he simply falls asleep in the hole, leaving Gemma alone with the boy. He begins to go off on his own and returns with tales of meeting others on his journeys, which is strange since it seems no one else lives or even visits Yonder. Eventually the boy grows up to become, well, older (Eanna Hardwicke). He’s still odd, but seems easier to deal with and more normal (but certainly not all there).

As the film eases into its final act, there are still so many questions, you must prepare yourself for the very real possibility that, not only will our couple not come out unscathed, but also that we may not get all of our burning questions answered. For those wondering, a vivarium is an area, usually enclosed, for keeping animals or plants for observation or research, and that definition may be the closest thing we get to an explanation about what transpires in this endlessly curious work. There’s a bit of a “Twilight Zone” element to the story, but the execution is unlike anything I’ve seen in science fiction (if that’s what this really is). The allegory for adulthood is amusing, but never really takes hold the way the filmmakers perhaps want it to, and that’s fine. It’s still enough of a puzzler to remain interesting and entertaining, as long as you enjoy watching two fine actors have their brains endlessly tortured while living the perfect family nightmare.

Vivarium is available on most major streaming platforms.

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