For a moviegoer with a long memory, watching Aubrey Plaza is a little like seeing Winona Ryder or Christina Ricci in their first few films. The same charismatic black cloud follows all three around — a refusal to engage not just with the other people on the screen but the expectations of filmed entertainment itself. They’re just not having any, yet behind the masks of deadpan ennui we sense hearts and sensibilities waiting to explode, in their own time and on their own terms.
Which kind of makes “Safety Not Guaranteed” Plaza’s “Heathers” or “The Opposite of Sex” — the moment when a dour young actress blooms into a darkly radiant star. It’s a tiny movie, a time-travel comedy so strapped for cash it takes place completely in the present, but because it’s so small, you can pinpoint the exact scene when Plaza arrives.
She plays Darius Britt, a 20-something intern at a Seattle alt-weekly dragooned into reporting on a rural oddball who claims to have invented a time machine. Darius is so disaffected, cynical, beaten down by life that she can barely lift her head, yet as she hangs out with her subject — a possibly deranged young man named Kenneth (Mark Duplass) — she becomes infatuated with his strangeness and passion. There’s a comic training montage, Kenneth leading Darius on forest runs and through awkward martial arts moves, and at a certain point Plaza does something wholly unexpected.
It’s not a shy smile, either, but the big, goofy grin of someone who can’t believe she’s falling in love. Darius doesn’t let on — she hasn’t told Kenneth she’s a reporter, but, really, she wants to keep her bliss to herself for a while. Being this close to someone even more alienated than she is feels curiously cheering. She’s not alone.
“Safety Not Guaranteed” is the first feature directed by Colin Trevorrow and written by Derek Connolly, and it’s a pleasantly ramshackle affair balanced uniquely between the crass and the sweet. (The film apparently sprang from an actual classified ad seeking companions for a time-travel excursion.) Darius heads out to the Washington sticks with Jeff (Jake M. Johnson of TV’s “The New Girl”), the preening reporter of record, and Arnau (Karan Soni), an even more socially maladroit intern who escapes Hindi-American caricature through the sly graciousness of the actor’s performance.
Has Kenneth built himself a time machine or is he a lunatic? I’m not saying and, anyway, it’s beside the point until the final scenes, when it’s not. A pair of government agents (Tony Doupe and Xola Malik) hover around the fringes, and there’s a raid on a local laser research facility, but everything is played for low-budget comic entropy. This is science fiction with the wheels off.
The movie’s really about the piercing human urge to go back and correct our mistakes. Darius wants to save her mother, Kenneth wants to rescue an old girlfriend from herself, or himself — it’s not very clear. A subplot about the callous Jeff reconnecting with a high school girlfriend (Jenica Bergere, pleasingly banal) feels off-topic until you realize he’s trying to time-travel, too. Everyone wants to return to when it was safe, before everything went wrong.
Somewhat radically, this charming little shaggy-dog story floats the notion that right now — whenever that is — might be the best moment of all. Duplass is becoming an inescapable presence behind the camera (“Cyrus,” “Jeff, Who Lives at Home”) and in front of it (“Greenberg,” “Darling Companion,” the upcoming “Your Sister’s Sister”), and he has a likable slacker intensity. (He also bears a weird resemblance to John Lennon during his mid-’60s “fat Elvis” period.)
But this is Plaza’s show and she rises to the occasion, above the film’s nonexistent budget and dodgy hair and makeup. Those huge eyes that on TV’s “Parks and Recreation” look out at the world with contempt are suddenly lit with curiosity and hesitant connection. She makes you believe Darius would go anywhere for this man, backward, forward, or straight into the present. The final scenes deliver a payoff worthy of the film’s scrappy optimism, but that may not be the reason you walk out of the theater on a cloud. It’s the sight of a character coming rapturously into her own at the same time as the actress playing her.
on Twitter @tyburr.