Meet Jim. Jim is a good guy. Jim is here to protect us. Jim is here to help us survive anything.. but first, he has to learn how. From first-time writer/director Quinn Armstrong, Survival Skills is introduced as a police training video for the Middletown Police Academy, complete with a stern narrator (Stacy Keach) to whip new recruits into shape. Jim (Vayu O’Donnell) is our hero, a bright-eyed and white-teethed officer too upbeat for his own good. Jim lives in the quaintly nondescript village of Middletown, which is almost entirely white and, the narrator informs us, voted overwhelmingly for Ronald Reagan in the 1988 election — despite the fact that he was not running.
At first glance, Jim doesn’t seem totally convincing as the type of guy who will save us from danger: everyman, an average guy, a blank slate — and when he first appears on the VCR screen, we design his outfit, his home, and his devoted girlfriend, as if we are designing a game character. But his cheeriness turns to disillusionment quite quickly when he is called to the home of Mark and Leah Jenning to investigate calls about domestic abuse. Even as Jim gets a tough-talking female partner and some scolding from the narrator on his naivete, he remains completely clueless about how to help a domestic violence victim and has an inflated sense of his own heroism and ability to “save” her.
The cinematography from Allie Schultz makes Survival Skills look like a lost video straight out of the 1980s, complete with grainy video footage and cheesy special effects. With its surreal sense of humor, it would also feel right at home on the likes of Adult Swim’s late-night programming and sitcom parodies. The narrative becomes a bit of a grab-bag of gimmicks, like giving viewers multiple-choice options about what actions an officer should take with protestors or showcasing a commercial for a lawyer who helped husbands get out of domestic abuse accusations, whose jingle features an eerily jaunty refrain of “She’ll testify – she said she would.”
But Survival Skills uses dark distortions of television tropes to start to chip away at Middletown’s cheery facade, and show just how misguided Jim is in pressuring Leah Jenning to pursue legal action against her husband. When Jim turns to his father for advice, we hear commentary from the narrator, oohs and ahhs from the audience, and a laugh track. But there is nothing funny about what they are talking about, and the men feel less and less humanized as they talk, with their unsettlingly flat delivery and totally vacant eyes. This juxtaposition becomes a recurring theme of this film: while the characters persist in maintaining an illusion that nothing bad ever happens in Middletown — or at least, nothing that the police can’t fix — the deep disturbances and genuine pain are hard to ignore.
While some scenes are clearly satirical, some moments are just flat-out disturbing without a hint of humor, such as one scene in which Jim interviews Lauren Jenning about how her father abuses her. Gone is any cheery music; it is silent as she recounts brutal physical abuse. These tone shifts are not always convincingly handled, and not every moment of absurdity and police incompetence feels fully justified, such as one scene when a call about reported Satanic ritual abuse that turns out to be a group of kids playing a tabletop role-playing game. Things take a further turn toward the weird — if things can get any weirder — toward the end of the film as Jim grows increasingly unhinged and seemingly robotic. Maybe it’s the job getting to him, or maybe he was never as much of a “real man” — or real human — as initially thought.
Survival Skills does not present us with the hottest take on the issue of police training, and some of its overarching messages on bureaucracy and blind adherence to a procedure can get a bit muddled in all the visual madness. It’s probably a good thing that this training video got lost, given its utter inability to inspire confidence that the Middletown police can actually protect their citizens. But while still finding its footing, Armstrong’s style is freaky, funny, and a bit foreboding. The distinct mix of tones and visual aesthetics signal that he is an imagination to watch out for; there is surely more weirdness from where this came from. In the meantime, let’s be grateful that Survival Skills has been unearthed for us to see before it disappears back into the video void.