The home invasion thriller has become such a staple of modern genre filmmaking that even creative twists on the formula are becoming common; Don’t Breathe and You’re Next have memorably tweaked the genre in the last few years. Safe Neighborhood, the follow-up to Chris Peckover’s disturbing Undocumented, is thoroughly entertaining, using both its Christmastime setting and a creative take on a familiar story to craft a delightful highlight of this year’s Fantastic Fest.
Our heroine is Ashley (Olivia DeJonge), a longtime babysitter to Luke (Levi Miller), who hopes to act on his unrequited crush on Ashley before her family moves away at the end of the weekend. With his parents (Virginia Madsen and Patrick Warburton, both wasted) off at a Christmas party, Luke’s plans are interrupted, first by his obnoxious best friend Garrett (Ex Oxenbould) and then by a masked man creeping around the house.
Safe Neighborhood truly is best experienced with as little prior knowledge as possible, and even hinting at the tricks up the film’s sleeve verges on giving too much away. The script from Beckover and Zach Kahn is surprising and smart, efficiently laying out the geography of the home as it does some very sly foreshadowing in the film’s opening stretch. Once more threatening elements come into play, Peckover confidently guides the film through tricky territory, having a lot of fun with his biggest reveals and pulling off an outstanding nod to one of the film’s biggest tonal influences.
The film plays a very delicate game with the audience’s sympathies throughout, and a lot of the credit for how intriguing it is goes to the performances from Levi Miller and Olivia DeJonge. Miller is particularly good, earnest and likeable as the lovestruck preteen trying to score with his babysitter, but as the threat to his home escalates, Miller’s performance shines. Both he and Ed Oxenbould, whose affability here is a nice contrast to his insufferable role in last year’s The Visit, display impressive range as their friendship is put through the ringer. Olivia DeJonge, who costarred with Oxenbould in The Visit, makes for a solid final girl, but is uneven in the film’s early stretch, struggling to sell both Ashley’s warmth towards Luke and her fear at the home invasion. As the film progresses, though, DeJonge is solid, imbuing Ashley with an intelligence and strength that prove vital to the character’s arc.
Chris Peckover’s 2010 debut, Undocumented, was an incredibly disturbing highlight of that year’s Fantastic Fest, and Safe Neighborhood takes that film’s twisted sensibility and adds a heaping dose of holiday cheer. Above all else, this is a superbly fun watch, slickly directed and constantly defying expectations in memorable ways. Hopefully it doesn’t take another six years for Chris Peckover to follow up on Safe Neighborhood, because this is a film that’s made so memorable by its total refusal to play things safe.