(NIGHTSTREAM 2020) FILM REVIEW: SURVIVAL SKILLS is a surreal and absurdist VHS-tinged mind trip.


Director Quinn Armstrong presents a darkly satirical look at how social constructs like the pilce fail people in the form of a forgotten 1980s police training video.

I’m a big fan of absurdist comedy. From Adult Swim’s Too Many Cooks, The Eric Andre Show, to The Venture Brothers; dark and satirical humor is something that tickles my funny bone. Clearly, it’s something close to director Quinn Armstrong’s heart as his latest film, SURVIVAL SKILLS, channels the weird staccato line readings of Yorgos Lanthimos’ films with the weird VHS aesthetic of EVERYTHING IS TERRIBLE. SURVIVAL SKILLS, which plays at the Nightstream Film Festival on October 9th, is presented as a police training video for the fictional Littletown Police Department by Survival Solutions, a company that claims to specialize in training videos, represented by the narrator (Stacy Keach). The film makes a point of showing how dated modern law enforcement techniques and how overworked police are in the person of Jim (Vayu O’Donnell), a rookie police officer who we as the audience will follow for the course of his first year on the job. Jim’s first day on the job takes him to a domestic violence case where he becomes heartbroken and fixated on the wife in the case Leah (Emily Chisholm) and her daughter Lauren (Madeline Anderson). His girlfriend Jenny (Tyra Colar) has no inner life, being a stock character, but dreams of having one in Bowling Green, Kentucky. As the world grows less sure and more rule, Jim’s naivete about the surety of rules guiding his life starts to drive him slowly mad.

Armstrong uses absurdist humor to poke fun at conformity and how sameness equals safety and acceptance. It’s really funny and done well throughout using the kitschiness of VHS nostalgia to present it as innocuously as possible. But its the innocuousness of the sunniness of Jim’s world juxtaposed with the darkness of the cases he has to work in the training video that show us how police have too many hats to wear in their job and maybe their psychological health is suffering from it, as well as that of the people they are serving. Jim’s fixation on the Jennings isn’t healthy and starts to become a black hole for him. A hole that causes him to ignore the narrator’s rules for survival. A hole that he fills by coming down hard on teens playing Dungeons and Dragons. His father can’t give him guidance and institutions fail him, even as everyone tells him to follow the rules.

Survival Skills is a disturbing, yet hilarious take on how kids were raised in the 1980s while skewering the institutions of church and law enforcement along the way as ultimately meaningless. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but for those with a certain love of absurdist and dark humor, this may be one of the funniest films you will see all year.

– 3 out of 5 stars
Dark and absurdist, but also hilarious, though it may not play well for everyone.