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Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots play a house-hunting couple trapped in a suburban nightmare in Vivarium.
A young couple stumbles into the wrong neighborhood while house-hunting and finds themselves prisoners in the forever home from hell in Vivarium, a surreal science fiction film directed by Lorcan Finnegan. The film premiered last year at the Cannes Film Festival and made its way around the festival circuit before being picked up for distribution by Saban Films. And it has been garnering quite a bit of positive word of mouth along the way.
There’s only the vaguest official premise: “A young couple looking for the perfect home find themselves trapped in a mysterious labyrinth-like neighborhood of identical houses.” But Wikipedia offers this telling definition of the film’s title: “A vivarium is an area, usually enclosed, for keeping and raising animals or plants for observation or research.” It translates into “place of life,” and it can be a small terrarium, for example, or something much larger, like Biosphere 2. It’s pretty obvious that the film’s suburban paradise is meant to be just such a place.
Imogen Poots plays Gemma, who is married to Tom (Jesse Eisenberg). They decide to check out the home options in a wholesome development called Yonder (“It has all you’d need and all you’d want”), and a very creepy real estate agent named Martin (Jonathan Aris) shows them around #9. Yonder is basically a large grid of identical streets filled with identical cookie-cutter houses, with the same cookie-cutter backyards. It calls to mind the classic folk song, “Little Boxes,” popularized by Pete Seeger in the 1960s, about cheap, tiny suburban houses “made of ticky-tacky” that “all look just the same.”
Martin seems especially keen to show them the nursery, inquiring about their plans for children.
- Welcome to Yonder, which promises you the perfect forever home.
- Gemma (Imogen Poots) and Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) decide to check out the neighborhood.
- Realtor Martin (Jonathan Aris) is very strange.
- Gemma and Tom seem to be driving in circles, unable to leave Yonder.
- Tom seeks out a rooftop view.
- What’s in the mysterious package?
- This is Gemma’s “WTF” face.
- Tom and Gemma must raise the child to win their freedom.
- Man, that kid is growing fast
- The longest 98 days of their lives.
- The Boy throws a tantrum.
- Tom and Gemma give zero f*#ks.
- Teach your children well.
We’ve seen this sort of cynical take on the conformist horrors of suburbia before: The Stepford Wives (both the 1974 cult horror film and the 2004 comic remake), for instance, or the 2017 Matt Damon black comedy Suburbicon. There’s also the 1999 episode of The X-Files (“Arcadia”), where Mulder and Scully go undercover to investigate strange disappearances in a gated community and quickly run afoul of the homeowner’s association.
There’s no HOA in Yonder, other than the mysterious Martin. In fact, there’s nobody else at all. Things take a weird turn when Gemma and Tom opt to pass on #9 and try to leave. They drive around in circles, always coming back to #9, until night falls and they have no choice but to take shelter in the house.
Gradually, they realize they are prisoners and become increasingly desperate, even trying to burn down good old #9. That’s where the trailer takes another turn. Gemma finds a package, with a baby boy inside and an ominous note: “Raise the child and be released.” They don’t have much of a choice. Fortunately (?), the baby grows up inhumanly fast, reaching what looks to be preschool age within a mere 98 days. But there’s still quite a few days to go before The Boy reaches full maturity. What will he be by then? And will Martin ever really let them leave this “forever home”?
The premise might feel familiar, at least at first, but the trailer looks quite promising. The buzz is that the Vivarium is much more strange, intense, and claustrophobic than one might expect. And there’s even a bit of humor peppered throughout. My favorite moment in the trailer: The Boy throws a tantrum when Tom calls him a “creepy little mutant.” His exhausted “parents” jointly give him the finger. And since children are natural mimics, he gives it right back to them.
Vivarium opens in select theaters on March 27, 2020.
Listing image by YouTube/ONE Media