Vivarium isn’t shy about placing its message front and centre. Targeting the daily grind that makes up our lives and hacks into the dream of the nuclear family living in the suburbs, it’s certainly not subtle in its attack. But it is on point, creating something stylish and unsettling.
Gemma (Imogen Poots) and Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) are house shopping. While looking at a potential house, they become trapped in a surreal labyrinthine maze of the suburbs and unable to escape. Stuck in their “forever home”, the young couple soon begin to receive packages of food and supplies from a mysterious source, till one day they receive a child, with instructions that they will be released if they raise him.
The result is a short and dis-quietening piece of film making, executed with a degree of aplomb. Vivarium doesn’t waste much time getting to the nub of the matter, starting with footage of a cuckoo throwing the other young chicks out of the nest, before quickly throwing the barely established characters into their perfectly imperfect suburban hell. Soon they’re trapped, being worn down by their environment, and the strange child that they are tasked with rearing.
Design and atmosphere are key here, as Vivarium really does have a simple plot. However, in its execution, it has enough to keep audiences off-kilter through its short runtime. It’s also meticulous in this, not wasting elements in its plot, and maintaining its own odd internal logic. That internal logic actually amplifies the tension of the piece, as Gemma and Tom might be stuck in madness, but there’s the suggestion that to an outside alien mind it is not merely knowable, but commonplace.
That’s best expressed by the relationship between Gemma and “the boy” (Sennan Jennings). Poots (Green Room) is great here, demonstrating the multiple conflicting emotions of empathy for the child they are raising, and fear and revulsion for the monster they think that he is. She is constantly torn struggling against depression, and a fierce need to escape her situation. By contrast, Eisenberg (The Social Network, Zombieland) is relegated to a support role, where his quirkiness acts more as a place-holder character sketch, rather than real development. It’s not a deal breaker for the film, but it certainly feels like a bit of a missed opportunity after casting such a fine actor.
Vivarium gives us a dose of Lynchian suburban nightmare coated in pastel colours. Its fine visuals and unnerving atmosphere lead to something that is joyfully unsettling.
Vivarium is currently available on VOD, and will be available on Foxtel On Demand from May 6.