Writer/director Quinn Armstrong’s Survival Skills is exactly the sort of VHS worship which I can absolutely get behind. Taking the visual aesthetic of grainy, worn-out video, replete with tracking issues, and combining it with acting which contrasts overt enthusiasm with wooden roboticism, Survival Skills uses its opening scenes to set you up and flip you around.
“Survival Skills is a lost police training video from 1988, which tells the story of Jim, a rookie cop who gets in over his head when he tries to resolve a domestic violence case outside the law.”
Armstrong’s film is all about the set-up, because if those opening scenes don’t land correctly, the rest of Survival Skills fails. The opening titles, Stacy Keach’s narration, the introduction of overly-enthusiastic and idealistic model cop, Jim (Vayu O’Donnell) and his weary partner Allison (Ericka Kreutz) – all of this is meant to create an aura of verisimilitude familiar to anyone who’s ever viewed old training videos, be it in person or by deep-diving into YouTube (thanks, Everything Is Terrible!).
The entire point of of Survival Skills is take the Platonic ideal of policing – this vibrant go-getter with absolute faith in the system – and then watch as the world doesn’t behave according to the rules in which he has invested. When Jim starts going off-script, the narrator is visibly confused. He is unprepared for this construct to behave like a real person.
The contrast between expectations and reality is something which Armstrong leans into heavily. At first, it’s comedic to see Jim interact with Allison. He has all his rules and lessons from the academy, and he’s just so sure that they’ll help him do well. However, she’s been worn down by what actually occurs. It’s cute, watching an enthusiastic puppy of a man come up alongside a dour old housecat who’s seen it all.
When more “reality” bleeds into the construct of the training video, the contrast is no longer funny. It’s shocking. It’s brutal. It’s sad. It’s flipping depressing, essentially, to see Jim try and try and try, only to be thwarted at every step of the way. His innocence and firm belief in what’s right are swiftly and brutally dismantled, after it all seemed to be going well.
As the film progresses, the collapse of the false front becomes more apparent. Jim goes further off-script. His girlfriend, Jenny (Tyra Colar) no longer mechanically responds to him, but instead packs a bag and leaves. The tracking errors begin to increase in number and intensity, as if Jim’s confusion and frustration are beginning to physically affect the very magnetic encoding of the tape itself. Seeing actors within the training video acknowledge their artificiality lends comic relief during moments where it feels as though Survival Skills is intent of becoming an unrelenting indictment of the system, with every flaw being laid out with HD clarity in a VHS world.
While the film does an excellent job of playing with the conventions of a training film, and then breaking outside those conventions, I do wish that the format had been stuck to a little more tightly early on. The fact that Jim begins to behave differently so soon makes later scenes with protesters who are constantly flubbing lines seem like a step backward. A steady declension of artifice into reality would’ve brought the point home more solidly, and made the last few minutes hit with more impact.
As it is, this is exactly the sort of thing which I love about festivals such as Fantastia: movies which aren’t afraid to play with convention and format, testing the waters of what’s really possible. While this is definitely a scary film by the time it’s over, those expecting traditional horror will see their conception of the genre pushed a little harder than usual, and I love to be challenged like this.