As far as groan-inducing subjects for satire go, suburbia is pretty much like shooting fish in a barrel. It’s a bit of a relic, too, as doom-and-gloom headlines declare millennials’ declining interest in becoming homeowners. But tell that to Irish helmer Lorcan Finnegan, whose surreal, supernatural take on the outskirts makes its premiere in the Critics’ Week program at the Cannes Film Festival. In his second feature, Finnegan twists suburban banality into something altogether horrifying and unnerving. As was the case with the sidebar’s recent genre selections “It Follows” and “Raw,” “Vivarium” is a refreshingly original sci-fi/horror hybrid that’s certain to be a breakout hit.
Young couple Tom and Gemma (Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots) are in the hunt for their first home. Strong-armed by an eerily cheerful real-estate agent, they are brought to look at model homes in the ‘Yonder’ development. It’s a hedge maze of rows upon rows of identical houses; the man with an unsettling smile cautions they’re not looking at a starter home, but one for… forever! Exploring the cookie-cutter dwelling, the pair realize that they’ve been stranded by the realtor. Something far more sinister is at play–they are unable to leave even the block. Think “Pac-Man,” where your avatar runs off one side of the screen only to re-enter from the other.
Before long, a mysterious package arrives with a baby inside and instruction to raise the child in order to leave. It doesn’t take long to realize something is amiss with the child, who grows at an astonishing speed. The unnamed boy (Senan Jennings, a formidable child performer) is an uneasy presence. Impossibly clingy, he screeches when he needs hunger or attention and parrots his parents with uncanny accuracy. Whereas Gemma burdens herself with the task of minding the strange youngster, Tom is determined to work out a way to escape Yonder.
The design of the showhome complex, as well as the interior staging of Tom and Gemma’s individual household, are dominated by impactful monochromatic tones. Director of photography MacGregor, although new to narrative features, has a deep commercial background that’s well-leveraged; the cinematography is like a sales pitch for IKEA from hell. Highly formal compositions—as buttoned-down as an upper middle class neighborhood—are broken up with punctuating close-ups and uneasy slow zooms.
“Vivarium” runs through all the cautionary tales of marriage and parenthood, and Tom and Gemma’s relationship is certainly strained by the surreal turn of events. Tensions flare over the way each parent acts towards to the child—dismissed by Tom as ‘a mutant’—who reaches out to Gemma for motherly affection. Ordinary issues surface, like a dispute over TV time. The disturbing twist is that the boy’s favorite program is black-and-white psychedelic static, an image so warped that you’ll want to look away. It’s yet another of the aesthetic details that render “Vivarium” so striking a watch.
It’s not all dire in Yonder; Eisenberg and Poots have convincing chemistry and anchor the surreal narrative in reality. The moments of tenderness between the two offer an accurate portrait of a marriage and act as a respite from the purgatory of their situation. On their own, neither lead makes a particular impact, and Eisenberg in particular keeps to his performative wheelhouse. When Gemma asks the child to make an impression of Tom, it comes across more as a caricature of the actor’s tics and affectations.
Beyond its initial act—kicked off by a cruel scene in a bird’s nest playing under the opening credits—and conclusion, “Vivarium” rests on its architecture and performers, but the pacing keeps the proceedings from feeling overly chamber-bound. A high-concept film like this lives or dies by the payoff to its premise, and the thrilling climax here doesn’t disappoint. It’s easy to make a comparison to the ambitious nature of “Black Mirror” and the new wave of anthology television making a pop-cultural impact in the past few years, but Finnegan’s ambitions are unmistakably cinematic in scope. All the more startling from a filmmaker on the starting blocks of his career, “Vivarium” impresses with its clarity of vision and originality. [B+]