Suburbia. Almost a genre of its own, be it the punchline to a dark comedy (Heathers, American Beauty), the setting of a satirical horror or sci-fi (The Stepford Wives, Donnie Darko), or a source of comforting normality (as it’s often used by the likes of Spielberg), there is no shortage of films exploring this facet of the American Dream.
Very often, suburbia is a façade of manicured lawns and nuclear families hiding much darker, suppressed needs which threaten the social order. However, Vivarium takes the road less travelled and instead turns the suburbs into an enforcer of conformity.
Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg lend star power to director Lorcan Finnegan’s sci-fi indie as Gemma and Tom, a young couple who’ve been encouraged by a friend to get on the housing ladder. Not wholly sold on the idea, they nonetheless wonder into a real-estate office promoting a new housing development named Yonder. They’re greeted by Martin (Jonathan Aris), an incongruously sinister estate agent who insists on driving them out to view their potential home.
Driving through a stylised landscape of identical, Monopoly-like houses, too-green lawns and cotton candy clouds, the couple can’t help but laugh at the absurdity of it all – but the hilarity quickly wears off when Martin leaves them stranded in the uninhabited suburb and they realise they have no way out. Their situation only gets worse when a box is left at their doorstep containing a baby that, instructions dictate, they must now raise. This alien-like child’s mission (soon teenager, then man – time is a strange thing in Yonder) seems to be to make Gemma and Tom’s lives a living hell.
What ensues is a tense, claustrophobic nightmare not well-suited to those currently looking for lockdown escapism. Two people locked in aimless routine and unable to escape their home, gradually turning on each other as an outlet for their fears and frustrations, might all hit a little too close to home right now.
Vivarium is a darkly satirical and surreal commentary on gender roles, the loss of oneself to parenthood, societal expectations and commercialised ideas of happiness. Though the premise seems one-note in the beginning, Finnegan and co-screenwriter Garret Shanley expertly layer this parable’s critiques, keeping the stakes high and the viewer engaged.
The film hums with muted paranoia, punctuated by the child’s piercing screams and Kristian Eidnes Andersen’s ominous score. It’s stress-inducing in an insidious, carefully measured way, further helped by great performances from Eisenberg and particularly from Poots, whose warmth elevates Vivarium’s otherwise cold intellectualism.
If you’re looking for a wholesome film to make you forget about being stuck indoors, this isn’t the one for you. However, if you’re ready to lean into your current circumstances and feel the full brunt of isolation and confinement, then Vivarium offers the perfect mix of socio-political commentary and surrealist horror to make you realise that, hey, maybe society itself is a prison!
Vivarium is available now on digital.