A low-concept film about time travel mightn't sound like much of a trip, but first-time director Colin Trevorrow offers good-natured fun and real substance in place of shiny surfaces and whizz-bang effects. He casts fellow indie filmmaker Mark Duplass as Kenneth, a possibly insane supermarket clerk who places an ad for a time travel companion, claiming to have the power at his fingertips.
Back to the Future fans might compare Kenneth to Christopher Lloyd's wacky Doc Brown except that's he's younger, with better hair and absolutely no qualifications. He is a survivalist who lives in the woods outside Seattle and remains something of an enigma, despite the efforts of three reporters assigned to follow his progress for a cute, human interest story.
Aubrey Plaza gets the closest to him as Darius, a moody intellectual who most men would find intimidating, but Kenneth is too crazy to care and he's heavily armed, too. More importantly, he feels a kindred spirit in Darius after they share their personal reasons for wanting to turn back the clock. Their conversations are heartfelt though Darius must keep her true mission a secret from him.
Arnau is also a comedy stereotype in what is otherwise an insightful portrait of social dysfunction drawn with laser-sharp wit. Naturally, Duplass is required to play his part in broad strokes - jabbering and gesticulating - but he's also touchingly vulnerable because of his powerful need to believe. Likewise, Jeff seems to hope against hope for a happy ending.
Kenneth's relationship with Darius is the true heart of the story and it naturally intensifies over rigorous military training and a comically un-stealth mission to rob a research facility for time machine parts. Apart from facing mortal danger together, the bond is tested by Darius's slowly rising fear that she is falling for someone who is completely delusional.
Unlike most romance tales, 'happily ever after' never looks like a foregone conclusion. In fact, a mood of foreboding starts to build when Darius looks deeper into Kenneth's history and the mystery deepens as it turns out that he is (as he claims) being followed by spooks. When the end finally does draw near, Trevorrow pulls the rug out again in a bold move, which might be seen as a copout.
Whatever conclusions may be drawn, it is a brilliantly-crafted script by Derek Connolly and Trevorrow (his long-time associate) directs with subtle flair. By taking the conventions of a sci-fi conspiracy thriller and landing them in the middle of an everyday, mumblecore setting they create a story that is genuinely surprising at every turn. As soon as it's over, you'll want to hit rewind.