It's so common to see 1970s décor in a movie set in rural America that it takes some signifiers (leaded gasoline, 25¢ coffee) to realize that Safelight is actually a period film. Writer-director Tony Aloupis takes a low-key approach to all aspects of his feature debut, from identifying the era to exploring the emotional trauma of his characters. Events unfold with a thoughtful reserve, a trait exemplified by seventeen-year-old Charles (Evan Peters), whose cerebral palsy makes him a social outcast in an isolated California desert town.
Charles is more comfortable with adults, like his brassy boss Peg (Christine Lahti), who runs a gas station convenience store, and the ailing father (Jason Beghe) he calls his best friend. Neither Peg nor his dad blinks an eye when Charles starts spending time with the soft-spoken Vicki (Juno Temple), an eighteen-year-old prostitute residing at the truck stop motel. Vicki begins driving Charles to the coast so he can photograph lighthouses, and this break from deadening routine enlivens them both.
Safelight (shot in 2012 and originally called Truck Stop) is sprinkled with life-affirming clichés that Aloupis keeps from becoming saccharine with his subtle approach and the cast's lived-in performances. (Even Kevin Alejandro's twitchy, unhinged Skid is more than just a violent pimp.) This 84-minute low-budget drama sometimes feels choppy, and doesn't need a voiceover from Charles explaining his love of photography, with its fleeting permanence. It's the live-and-let-live attitude of these accepting characters that makes Safelight a welcome haven.