Vivarium is a secure piece of creation. It’s a co-production, on many levels, exhibiting an above-the-line level of craft and a good sense for compiling a film. All the composite parts are pretty good. In fact, its two stars, Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg (their second pairing, after The Art of Self Defense, 2019), are occasionally great. Multiple countries have outstretched their funding arms, deep in the pudding, and director Lorcan Finnegan has proven a quality investment. From this work, he will find other work. We do not need to proclaim it as a magnificent breakout to feel his sturdy potential, a graceful understanding of form and content. Here, he has made a startling feature that would operate wonderfully as a thirty-minute short.
The feature is about the damning normality of domesticity. Once Poots and Eisenberg’s characters are shown a starter home, by an untoward, insistent real estate man, they find themselves suddenly unable to leave. They circle the block over and over. Their disc of The Specials self-titled album will not deliver them home — “Rudy, a message to you / Stop fooling around / Time to straighten right out / Better think of your future.” Right down to their shared music choice, we learn so much, about what they want, their shared aspirations, what Vivarium is going to be about. No matter how many times they circle, they wind up parked in front of the same home. They try to cross to the neighbors and realize, they have not always left. There’s no choice but to stay, as anywhere they go, delivers them back to where they were.
It is a darn good premise, a flittering Talking Heads song paralyzed by the unattainability of a proper American Dream and the trap of being stuck inside it, twisted around the spine of a Twilight Zone episode. They break into the welcome package, some wine, and strawberries, finding neither has any taste. When they bite in, it’s soundless. Every part of The Big Dream is fabricated, false, and not even available to the couple. Even inside it, they cannot see outside the illusion of the thing. They are delivered a box. It says, raise the boy to adulthood, and you can escape.
They are given a clever little boy. He talks like a computer and looks like the 3D-printed offspring of their real estate agent. He grows too quickly. He whines like a wild, hurt animal. He insists on the couple’s parenthood. Poots does a really great job playing off the robotic child, becoming maternal, with a defined magnetism that has made her special in all her indie darling work. Eisenberg distances, and does a great job becoming disillusioned too, drifting further and further from his old reality, as he digs himself a literal hole in the front yard, going nowhere but down.
Everything fundamental about Vivarium happens within its first thirty minutes. The next hour goes where you think it would. But it would achieve the same exact effect, were we to shave everything else off. It would be a great short film. But it is there. And it follows along the exact path it sets up. The filmmaking becomes as inevitable as the premise, finished as a courtesy to the many countries financing the piece so that they might receive a feature-length picture after. And everyone involved will get work after that, because what’s there is positive. It paints a nice picture and then paints, and paints, until all the colors have browned and lost the purpose of their use.