An attractive cast can’t rescue this well-meaning but slow, sappy romantic triangle involving a high school boy with a disability, a young prostitute with the proverbial heart of gold and her volatile pimp. Writer-director Tony Aloupis has secured the services of some very capable actors for his debut feature, but the bland material defeats their best efforts, especially since his helming has an enervated vibe.
Evan Peters stars as Charles, a talented photographer with a game leg who’s constantly bullied by three thuggish classmates led by Jason (Will Peltz) as he slowly walks home from school through the California flatlands. Abandoned by his mother when he was just a child, he’s now watching his kindly father Eric (Jason Beghe) gradually waste away of cancer, and earns money by working as a clerk at the truck stop owned by free-spirited, supportive Peg (Christine Lahti).
Also working at the truck stop—or more properly right outside it—is Vickie (Juno Temple), who offers herself to the drivers passing through. She sometimes runs afoul of her brutal pimp/boyfriend Skid (Kevin Alejandro), and one night Charles defends her against him, employing Peg’s always-ready baseball bat. That earns him the thanks of the young woman, who shortly offers to drive him along the California coast to photograph lighthouses for a school project. As their trips continue, they grow closer, and she’s even ready to pull out her gun to protect him against Jason and his pals.
The two also become involved in each other’s family situations, with Vickie impressing Eric despite her chosen profession, and Charles accompanying Vickie when she returns home to reconnect with her mother, despite the presence of her shrilly disapproving sister Kate (Ariel Winter). They even venture out on a date to a dancehall with Peg and her lady friends.
Of course, matters cannot go smoothly for the pair. Eric’s condition continues to deteriorate, and Skid vacillates between menacing Charles and offering him a sort of drunken camaraderie. Things come to a head when Vickie takes off after a confrontation with her sister and is threatened by Skid upon her return. When Charles intervenes, a fight ensues, and Vickie must make a split-second decision about how to react.
The major performances in “Safelight” are actually quite good. Peters and Temple both project a touching vulnerability, and their scenes together are sensitively played, while Alejandro manages to be genuinely frightening in his unpredictability. Veterans Lahti and Beghe also offer sympathetic turns. But the younger supporting players in particular are amateurish, with Winter terribly strident and Peltz a lumbering cliché. Cinematographer Gavin Kelly captures some nice images, especially in the on-the-road lighthouse sequences, and Ed Marx’s editing keeps the piece under ninety minutes, which is about all that the thin story can bear. But Joel P. West’s score doesn’t add much, and some loud pop tunes added to the mix are intrusive.
Given the considerable talent in front of the camera, it’s a pity that the screenplay Aloupis provided them with is such mediocre stuff and his direction so listless. “Safelight” hobbles its good cast with a script that would barely pass muster as an afterschool special.