Saturday 26 October 2019

VIVARIUM - London Film Festival review

On the look for their first home together, primary school teacher Gemma (Imogen Poots) and her boyfriend Tom's (Jesse Eisenberg) attempt at house-hunting sees them unexpectedly trapped in an uninhabited, labyrinthian suburb that they cannot escape from. When a box arrives containing a baby boy and a note telling them to raise the child in order to be released, Gemma and Tom begrudgingly look after the rapidly ageing boy whilst looking for other means of escape.

A very weird take on the modern suburban nightmare, writer/director Lorcan Finnegan's Vivarium is undoubtedly one of the strangest films in this year's festival's cult strand, sitting somewhere between a horror and a bitter societal satire. The house they are taken to by their estate agent Martin (Jonathan Aris - so sinister in Channel 4's The End of the Fucking World) is surrounded by road after road of identical cookie cutter houses, part of the otherworldly estate of Yonder where the clouds resemble something more like a 1980s TV weather map than reality, and any attempt to drive away sees Gemma and Tom end up exactly where they started.

Forced into a mundane routine in a house they do not want, they try to burn it down only to see the damage disappear, left with no option but to parent a child that is not theirs. Prone to letting out high pitched screeches when he doesn't get things his way or is forced to wait for his morning bowl of corn flakes, the boy (un-named, but with a dress sense not dissimilar to estate agent Martin) is both adorably sweet and the most devilish looking child this side of The Omen. His innocent demeanour does start to wear down the defences of Poot's Gemma over time, seeing her step into the traditional motherly role that she fights against for as long as she can. Conversely, Eisenberg's despair at the situation and unfiltered distain for the ever-growing boy has him spiralling into a deep depression that pushes him into a negligent father role and further and further away from Gemma.

The basic premise of Vivarium is sound enough, if not a little overstretched as a feature film. Even with the presence of Oscar nominee Eisenberg and the ever dependable Poots, this is clearly film made on a low budget but with a wealth of ideas. Stripped down to the basics, it may have worked better as a single episode of a dystopian TV show (even the house they are inside is no. 9), and if the cold, bland CGI rendered setting never looks realistic (almost like a modern version of Beetlejuice's the Maitlands getting stuck in their own miniature model, although far less visually stimulating), it does add to the sense that they've walked into somewhere truly bizarre and actively dangerous. 

The obvious nightmare scenarios of the horrors of parenting, expected gender roles and feeling trapped in a mundane, repetitive, suburban existence remain surface level, but quite what it's actually trying to say about these things largely remains a mystery. It is, at times, darkly comic (there's a perverse joy in seeing two grown adults actively hate a small boy), and the performance from an against type Eisenberg is nihilistic fun, but it's Poots's character who's front and centre for the majority of the film, and the one who deserves the most praise for delivering a solid performance in an occasionally baffling film.



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