Quinn Armstrong’s Survival Skills is a real oddity. It is an experimental, politically-charged, satirical-comedy-cum-horror throwback; think David Lynch meets Charlie Kaufman on a dime budget. While it may have bitten off more than it can chew, there’s certainly nothing else like it out there. Inspired by 1980s cop training videos (!), it wants to satirize police bureaucracy and make a somber statement about domestic violence. As such, it only intermittently works. Kudos to Armstrong for even attempting such a feat. He does an excellent job ensuring that the VHS esthetic transcends being a mere gimmick and actually services this by turns wacky and tragic story.
“…Jim gets emotionally involved in cases…[and] therefore, defies the expected narrative provided by the Narrator…”
The VHS format not only allows Armstrong to mimic the look and feel of the aforementioned videos, but it’s a wise choice from a budgetary perspective, letting the filmmaker go nuts with the purposefully cheap visuals. Stacey Keach is the nameless Narrator, introducing us to the Middletown Academy, set in a “typical American town, 89% white”. “Since the dawn of time,” Keach states early on, “society has been divided between those who follow the rules and those who break them.” He then introduces us to the uber-earnest young trainee, Jim (Vayu O’Donnell), who believes that he has what it takes to become a true protector of society.
Jim is composed out of nothing, a crude digital replica, plucked into a house, and given an emotionless girlfriend, Jenny (Tyra Colar). He’s also assigned a partner, Allison (Ericka Kreutz), who marvels at how borderline-imbecilic he is. She gradually warms to him, as they visit victims of domestic abuse, and Jim gets emotionally involved in cases, even getting groceries for said victims and inviting them to stay at his place. He, therefore, defies the expected narrative provided by the Narrator; the VHS static rips through the screen as the Narrator pleads, “Jim, think about what you’re doing.” Ultimately, the harder Jim tries to subvert the system, the more he’s shunned by his colleagues, the people he tries to help, and the Narrator.
"…drawn from Armstrong's experience working at domestic violence shelters."