Bait and switch may be a reprehensible sales technique, but it often works wonderfully in movies. The indie comedy Save Yourselves! kicks off with what seems like a solid sitcom-episode premise: Extremely online couple Su (Sunita Mani) and Jack (John Reynolds) decide to spend an entire week disconnected from the internet, focusing instead upon their in-person interpersonal dynamic. (The impetus for this experiment, typical of the movie’s droll sense of humor: Su, frustrated, knocks Jack’s phone out of his hand and across the apartment without warning, whereupon he turns to her and says with deep sincerity, “Thank you.”) To that end, the two Brooklynites borrow a friend’s isolated cabin upstate, bringing along their smartphones and laptops but vowing not to pick them up unless there’s a genuine emergency. It’s not too hard to guess what sort of jokes would emerge from this scenario, and severe tech withdrawal does briefly play a key role. The film’s true premise, however, involves the emergency that soon arises, since Su and Jack have cut the world off at the precise moment that it’s invaded by a hostile alien race.
It’s at this point that Save Yourselves! becomes potentially divisive—not because of the switcheroo (which is both inspired and pretty heavily telegraphed), but due to the nature of the invading aliens. In a touch that some will find hilariously silly and some may find just plain silly, Earth has been overrun by creatures that, to human eyes, resemble a particularly useless piece of ornamental furniture. Su and Jack wind up calling them “pouffes,” because that’s what Su mistakes the first one they encounter for—it’s just sitting on the floor of their cabin, round and fuzzy and seemingly innocuous. The thing keeps turning up in different spots, though, even though both Su and Jack deny having touched it. Once the threat becomes apparent (and days’ worth of retrieved frantic emails and text messages reveal a global apocalypse), much of the comedy hinges on the absurd disjunction between the pouffes’ physical cuteness and homicidal fervor; it’s as if Star Trek’s tribbles behaved like the Alien franchise’s xenomorphs. Maybe there’s a metaphor here, since our phones likewise appear harmless and can be destructive. Mostly, though, it’s just goofy-a-go-go.
The broader laughs wouldn’t land, however, had the film not first established an engagingly specific context. Written and directed by first-time filmmakers Alex H. Fischer and Eleanor Wilson, who are themselves a couple, Save Yourselves! benefits enormously from a very precise understanding of how people in a long-term relationship can get on each other’s nerves. Early on, while taking a decidedly non-sexy shower with Jack, Su asks him to pass her the face wash and gets irritated when he asks which of their numerous tiny unlabelled bottles that might be: “It’s the orange one! Jack, acquaint yourself with the soaps!” Indeed, the film is arguably strongest during its first half, when our heroes are still self-obsessively unaware of the danger. If Simon Pegg wandering his neighborhood in a hungover daze, oblivious to the zombies and carnage, is your favorite Shaun Of The Dead sequence, here’s an extended remix of that basic idea, facilitating plenty of background gags even as millennial oversensitivity gets razzed upfront.
While pre-cabin scenes offer up an assortment of perfectly realized Brooklyn types, who say things like “We didn’t want to do the whole mariachi thing ’cause it felt a little too much like appropriation” and “Our individual lives are meaningless, if you think about it. But only if you think about it,” this movie is fundamentally a two-hander, which means that casting was crucial. Mani (who plays Beirut on GLOW but is currently perhaps best known as the woman inexplicably dating the obnoxious sign guy in those ubiquitous Progressive ads) and Reynolds (from Search Party and Stranger Things) have to walk a tricky line, playing characters who are definitely meant to be annoying but not so annoying that we’re actively rooting for their demise. Both pull it off, retaining just the right amount of sympathy while demonstrating an easy, relaxed chemistry together. Save Yourselves! didn’t have the budget to pull off its ambitiously bizarre and essentially unresolved ending (which might not have been satisfying even had it been fully realized—it’s really way out there, quite literally), but it gets the small things just right, and that’s far more important.