A sensitive teenager with cerebral palsy, a hooker with a heart of gold, and various other sentient cliches collide in “Safelight,” a bland and unremarkable tale of sad souls and dead-end circumstances from first-time feature director Tony Aloupis. A handful of solid performances and some subtle ’70s period detailing are hardly enough to recommend this flat, predictable drama, which will rely on its few cast names (including Juno Temple and Christine Lahti) to draw a few eyeballs in simultaneous limited/VOD release; like most of its characters, it looks to be headed nowhere fast.
You wouldn’t necessarily know exactly when “Safelight” is taking place, aside from a brief mention of Vietnam and the old-school black-and-white camera used by the lead character. Photography represents one of the few bright spots in the life of shy 17-year-old Charles (Evan Peters, taking an indie breather between “X-Men” movies), who works behind the register at a gas station in a sleepy desert town and walks with a severe limp, which has made him a target for more than a few bullies. One of them is Skid (an over-the-top Kevin Alejandro), a volatile pimp whom Charles meekly scares off with a baseball bat one evening, to the lasting gratitude of Skid’s prostitute, Vicki (Temple).
The two strike up an unlikely but resilient friendship: Vicki drives Charles to scenic waterfront destinations where he can take photos of lighthouses, while Charles encourages Vicki to get back in touch with her mom and two sisters, who clearly want nothing more to do with her. Despite the flickers of hope awakened by their deepening bond, Charles and Vicki both seem thoroughly trapped — less by their circumstances than by the fumblings of a screenplay with very little imagination. Eventually a gun gets whipped out, and then it gets whipped out again, leading to one of the more nonsensically abrupt endings in recent memory.
The two leads are pleasant enough to watch onscreen, although Temple has played this sort of down-on-her-luck dirty girl several times too many. Nothing here registers in a more than perfunctory manner, not even the inevitable, potentially rich scene where Vicki tries to get intimate with Charles the only way she knows how, to his shock and bafflement. Doing their utmost to inject some life into the banal proceedings are Jason Beghe as Charles’ sickly, aging father and Christine Lahti as his big-personality boss and de factor mother figure, both of whom offer unconditional love and support while making endless attempts to boost his self-esteem. Their efforts seem largely wasted: Charles is a sweet kid, but he’s a bit of a drip, and so is the movie.