“More of a movie to experience than enjoy”
Gemma (Imogen Poots) is a teacher. Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) is a gardener. They’re a couple – a happy one. And, as happy couples do, they’ve started looking for their first home.
It’s this search that brings them to Prospect Properties, where they meet creepy and persuasive estate agent Martin (Jonathan Aris). He convinces Tom and Gemma to visit one of Prospect’s show homes in the ‘Yonder’ development. They follow him to number 9 – a perfectly nice house on a perfectly nice street, each building uniformly painted a sickly shade of mint green. When Martin leaves and the couple struggle to find their way out, Vivarium descends into a surreal suburban nightmare that will make any millennial watching glad that they’ll probably never get on the property ladder.
Despite the opening credits rolling over an oddly disturbing cuckoo montage, we get off to a fairly normal start. Poots and Eisenberg are charming and funny, their natural chemistry giving their relationship that ‘lived-in’ feel from the first few minutes. Once we arrive in Yonder, the film starts to gather pace and morphs from true to life, to high concept science fiction, to something closer to an experimental piece of art.
The less you know going in, the better. At its core, Vivarium is a bold, blackly comedic look at what director Lorcan Finnegan has called the ‘social contract’: we get married, we buy a house, we have kids, then we die. There’s a reason family properties are called ‘forever homes’ – Tom and Gemma certainly got more than they bargained for with theirs. Vivarium takes the circle of life and intensifies its most cruel and soul-destroying qualities; a ghastly perspective on what we get when we sign up for the nuclear family formula.
Vivarium is billed as a two-hander but Poots takes the lead, with the relatability of her performance keeping the film grounded. Both stars do well to cling on to their characters with such an increasingly challenging script, and the moments where they reconnect as a couple amongst the madness work best: a touch of the shoulder shows solidarity; a dance in front of their car headlights reignites joy, if only temporarily. As they reminisce about when they first met, you ask yourself – what were your parents like before they had you? Were they happier back then? Do they long to go back?
The only other notable actor in this small cast is Jonathan Aris. His facial expressions, mannerisms and commitment to the role of Martin make him a scene stealer. His every move sends the whole theatre into cackling laughter, whether out of genuine mirth or nervous discomfort.
The concept is so strong that by its nature, it takes a while to truly set up. The minutes tick by as we sit through all of Tom and Gemma’s attempts to escape, knowing perfectly well from the trailer that they can’t, and waiting impatiently for them to figure it all out so we can finally get stuck into the good stuff. The trouble is, the good stuff never really comes with the intensity that you expect – there’s a constant sense of waiting for the film to settle in, but its too busy pulling the rug from under the audience’s feet to find its own.
Definitely more of a movie to experience than enjoy, this film’s intensity and just plain weirdness might detract from its rewatch value. But, sure to be memorable for its striking visual storytelling and compelling central performances, Vivarium should also be commended for its sheer bravery alone.
Dir: Lorcan Finnegan
Script: Lorcan Finnegan, Garrett Shanley
Cast: Imogen Poots, Jesse Eisenberg, Jonathan Aris