Safe Spaces (known as After Class in some territories) is a darkly comic film from director and writer Daniel Schechter. Featuring Justin Long as Josh Cohn, a non-tenured professor of Creative Writing at a university. During one of his lectures, he encourages a student to reveal what really happened at the end of a date. He implores his students to write about what is real, even if it’s embarrassing. This act opens him up to the criticism and ostracization we see generally associated with cancel culture. Alongside this, he is dealing with the failing health of his Grandmother and various other familial pressures, all affecting his decision making and abilities to negotiate difficult conversations rationally. As someone without trauma, it is hard for Josh to really empathise with the possible lives of his students or the people around him.
Safe Spaces is a criticism of the dogpiling that can happen when someone makes a mistake. It forces us to look beyond that mistake and consider that each of us has other things happening. It also suggests that we should think before we speak, and not assume the level of privilege someone has. Once you dig through the people who are taking offense on behalf of others, there is a girl who has genuine trauma triggered by the conversation in class. This is fundamentally what is important, and Josh needs to admit fault there before he can really move on with his career.
These scenes are frustrating to watch, and you genuinely feel for Josh as he is attempting to swim upstream to repair his reputation rather than making it worse. This is balanced by the beautiful storyline around his grandmother Agatha (Lynn Cohen). A woman who has dealt with her own share of hardship, the impending loss of her forces Josh and his family to address unsolved issues between them and repair their relationships. It has a satisfying conclusion, that doesn’t so much absolve Josh as balance what he’s done. He is left with a lesson learned for the future and one he won’t forget in a hurry.
There is a risk that some of the frustrating scenes are over-egged, and that they may lose some viewers before they see it through. Certain risks are taken and assumptions are made about those who are fighting battles for what is right on internet platforms. Everyone here thinks they are on the moral side, and that can be hard to watch depending on who is shouting loudest in the scene. It can at times be hard to watch.
Thankfully there is enough here to keep you watching, and the ending is a satisfying one. Although it sometimes feels as though the writing is leaning a bit too far towards the right, we move through the process of becoming more accepting as Josh does, as he is faced with those he genuinely disagrees with, he begins to truly see the error of his ways. In the end, the lesson is one of consideration and empathy, not of silence and anger. The hope is that people viewing it will read it that way, not as a criticism of equality or political correctness, but as a promotion of empathy over immediate responses to contradictory ideas.
Dir: Daniel Schechter
Scr: Daniel Schechter
Cast: Justin Long, Kate Berlant, Lynn Cohen.
Prd: Lawrence Greenberg, Courtenay Johnson, Jordan Kessler
DoP: Gregory J. Wilson
Music: Aaron Esposito
Runtime: 93 mins
Safe Spaces will be available on Digital Download from 7th December