In a small-town elementary school, 8-year-old Michael lays on the cold gym floor, stretching with the rest of his class. But their normal routine is interrupted when the class hears the sound of a gunshot nearby.
They rush to seek refuge in their gym teacher’s office, trying to stay as quiet as possible, even as the shooter prowls the halls outside. But as he gets dangerously close, Michael senses something familiar about the shooter. He makes a daring move, altering both of their lives forever.
Written and directed by Oscar-nominated director Fabrice Joubert -- and produced by Samuel Francois Steininger -- this dramatic short tackles the incendiary subject of gun violence and school shootings with an unusually emotional intimacy and a careful craftsmanship that is haunting in its pared-down simplicity.
The storyline of the film -- adapted from the acclaimed short story by Lydia Fitzpatrick -- is distressingly familiar, both from other films and news headlines: a school is invaded by a shooter, putting the lives of children and their teachers in peril. But the creative approach eschews the traditional construction of suspense, where the film treats the narrative in a thriller-like way.
Instead, there is an agonizing patience in how clearly and closely the camera and editing tracks the experience from the POV of the children. With a lucidity that is tense in its steadiness, the cinematography and camera movement are never agitated, and the sound design is remarkably quiet, emphasizing the importance of silence to evade detection. The performances by the cast -- which includes Rob Nagle, Garrison Griffith, Gattlin Griffith and Marie Moute -- are also collectively muted, pulling emotion within from fear rather than outwardly from panic.
In a strange way, the lack of sensationalism in the filmmaking gives the events happening onscreen both an air of unreality and quiet ordinariness. A school shooting should be a rare, unreal, aberrant event, this approach seems to say -- and yet it has become distressingly commonplace in the U.S.
The film's second half seems to shift, focusing on Michael and his interaction with the shooter and subsequently heightening the expressiveness of the filmmaking, as if letting out the pent-in tension. The visuals open up, almost offering a wider perspective on events, and the emotions surface, especially with a remarkably moving score by Mathieu Alvado, performed by the acclaimed London Symphony Orchestra. These elements combine at the end to create an unabashedly sorrowful conclusion, as well as an acknowledgment that even though our group of children in the gym may be okay, the final casualty of the film is still a tragedy in its way.
"Safety" is many ways is a film that can't be separated from the wider context that it touches upon. While its craftsmanship at all levels is exemplary, it is also irrevocably intertwined with the real-life events it is inspired by. The fact that most viewers will know what is happening at the sound of the first shot evokes a terrible knowledge that clouds the entire narrative, giving it an urgency that its careful approach to craft belies. But by evoking the POV of those most intimately affected by a school shooting -- the children that pundits, advocates and others speak for or about, but that we often never hear from directly in the discourse around the subject -- it reminds us just what is at stake, and who is most affected.