If you’ve ever been lucky enough to see clips from actual U.S. police training videos from the 80s or 90s, you’ll know that they’re quite a sight to behold. While their goal is to prepare in-coming police officers for every possible scenario they’ll face on the job, they go about it in many absurd and unrealistic ways. It’s pretty clear that writer/director Quinn Armstrong watched a lot of them in preparation to make his new film, Survival Skills, which claims to be a lost training video from the 1980s.

A police training video wouldn’t be anything without a narrator, and Survival Skills doesn’t disappoint in that department. Stacy Keach takes on that prestigious role, and he couldn’t be more perfect for it. While the movie starts off as one would expect a parody to, it takes a much more satirical and dark comedic approach. Stacy Keach introduces us to Jim (Vayu O’Donnell), the epitome of a perfect policeman. When he’s thrown into the “real world” of the training video, however, his pitch-perfect attitude is challenged.

Survival Skills takes many, and I mean many, twists, and turns. It keeps it unpredictable, but it does get to the point of almost being too much. But what saves it is its commitment to unconventionality. The visual style sticks to the grainy VHS quality for most of the movie, making it very surreal at times, especially when the narrative elements start to get purposefully wonky. Something is clearly off right from the beginning, and that only increases until it goes off the rails completely by the end.

The main crux of the film is when Jim investigates a domestic violence call on his first official training day. He discovers a father who’s abusive to his wife and daughter, but the father covers it up along with his family and there’s nothing that the police can do. This doesn’t sit well with Jim, so he spends the rest of the movie trying to help the mother and daughter while also completing the rest of his training. The narrator attempts to keep Jim on track every time he strays from the plot (his training), which leads to the overall awareness the movie has. A social commentary aspect also comes into play; the fact that cops aren’t actually properly equipped to deal with most of the situations they are called into face, despite all of the training videos that are made for them. Despite all of the weirdness, the overall story manages to be oddly poignant.

Survival Skills is a mind trip that’s definitely worth sitting through. The self-awareness trope is not technically an original idea, but it’s done in such a clever and inventive way that is extremely refreshing. You’ll be asking a lot of questions every step of the way, but it’s a film viewing experience that will stick with you in the most positive of ways.

Dir: Quinn Armstrong

Scr: Quinn Armstrong

Cast: Stacy Keach, Vayu O’Donnell, Spencer Garrett, Ericka Kreutz

Prd: Colin West, Mike Downing

DOP: Allie Schultz

Country: USA

Year: 2020

Runtime: 84 minutes

Survival Skills is screening as part of the Nightstream film festival and has no official release date at this time.

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