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article imageReview: ‘Survival Skills’ shows ethics are sometimes secondary Special

By Sarah Gopaul     Sep 4, 2020 in Entertainment
‘Survival Skills’ is a satirical critique of police training in the form of an old-fashioned education VHS tape that goes off the rails.
While North American law enforcement has come under scrutiny for its bias application of discretion and unnecessary use of lethal force in countless situations, navigating the discussion around these topics can be challenging. Nonetheless, there have been a number of films that do an excellent job of shining a light on the subject and bringing the conversation to the forefront. Many of these pictures tell the story from the perspective of the victim since that narrative has historically lacked attention, but few try to depict the root of the problem. In Survival Skills, audiences are taken into the world of a 1980s police training video that goes off-script.
Meet Jim (Vayu O’Donnell). He’s the fresh-faced rookie who’s going to be your guide on this journey to becoming a good police officer. Note Jim’s optimistic enthusiasm and willingness to do anything to help a person in need. He brushes off his partner’s bitter pessimism — at one point advising she shouldn’t be a cop if she can’t see the good in people — and tries to make friends with his co-workers. However, his first 9-1-1 call plants the initial seeds of concern that he may not be as effectual in making the world a better place as he thought. Responding to a domestic dispute, Jim has trouble accepting that no charges will be laid. This causes a spiral of interference and rule-breaking that the video narrator (Stacy Keach) cannot rewind or erase no matter how hard he tries.
Jim’s unpreparedness is revealed pretty early on when he proves completely ill-equipped to handle the screaming couple and their frightened teenager. He then breaks the “don’t get personal” rule by repeatedly reaching out to the abused parties in an attempt to save them, even though he doesn’t have a real solution to their problem. Through Jim’s experiences and other cops’ confessions, it’s increasingly obvious they’re unqualified to respond to many of the calls they attend — they’re not social workers and they’re not trained to handle non-violent cases. To that end, Jim’s lesson in handling a knife-wielding suspect results in him being instructed to just use his gun before the course devolves into an aerobics class. Later, Jim interrupts a group of teenagers playing Dungeons & Dragons because a neighbor reported potential Satan worshippers entering a house. The Narrator addresses these failures with a matter-of-fact “it’s all part of the job” statement, saying that one day the burden of guilt over a cop’s mistakes will likely cause him to become an alcoholic and possibly abuse his own family.
Inspired by the long-gone days of VHS police education videos, writer/director Quinn Armstrong uses the medium to explore the short-comings of law enforcement training. Each time Jim goes off-course, the video tracking also fails and the screen becomes briefly snowy. The Narrator tries repeatedly to get Jim back on script, but he can’t overcome the rookie’s determination and naiveté. In the meantime, Jim’s sunny demeanour grows gloomier, leaving his single-minded, robotic wife (Tyra Colar) — also one of the few non-white actors in the picture — to grow confused and concerned about his well-being. This dark satire sheds a grim light on the consequences of poor preparation colliding with steadfast beliefs and bad people.
Survival Skills had its international premiere at the 2020 Fantasia Film Festival.
Director: Quinn Armstrong
Starring: Stacy Keach, Vayu O'Donnell and Spencer Garrett
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