Directed by Lorcan Finnegan.
Starring Imogen Poots, Jesse Eisenberg, Senan Jennings, Jonathan Aris and Eanna Hardwicke.
When a couple visits a strange, suburban housing development, they find themselves trapped within the confines of its eerily silent, identical streets.
The notion of setting a twisted satire in the American suburbs is, by now, a well-worn trope. From the recent strangeness of Greener Grass and Suburbicon to classics like The Stepford Wives and The Truman Show, the white picket fences and primary-colour-hued homes of suburbia almost always seem to conceal something grotesque. That’s certainly true of Irish filmmaker Lorcan Finnegan’s Vivarium – a dark sci-fi chiller unfolding within the olive green streets of a development housing a dark secret.
Teacher Gemma (Imogen Poots) and tree surgeon Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) are desperate to get themselves on the housing ladder, which brings them into the office of the bizarre, stilted estate agent Martin (Jonathan Aris). He leads them to the aspirational new “Yonder” development – slogan: “Quality family homes. Forever.” – with the sales line that these beautiful homes “may not be available for much longer”. Midway through the viewing, Martin leaves without warning and, when the couple attempt to leave, they find their car circling back to the same front door. Soon after, a cardboard box shows up with a baby inside and a simple message: “Raise the child and be released”.
What follows is a bleak, smart tale, penned by Garret Shanley from a story he co-crafted with Finnegan. A flash-forward shows that, by Day 98, the mysterious infant has rapidly grown to the size of a seven-year-old (Senan Jennings). The boy is a strange, socially stunted creature, prone to unleashing banshee-like screams when he is hungry or told to tear his attention away from a curious light show, which seems to be the only thing playing on their TV. Meanwhile, Tom develops a preoccupation for digging a deep hole in the artificial turf of their front lawn, leaving Gemma to care for the child.
It’s a setup that, above all else, shows how quickly the imprisonment of suburbia – a vivarium is an enclosed tank for observing plants or animals – reinforces the heteronormative dynamics of the nuclear family. Tom departs each day into his hole, as if he’s the man going off to work, while Gemma spends her day with housework, cooking and childcare. This dynamic has a toxic impact on their relationship, pushing their previously close bond further and further apart to the point that sex is out of the question and, ultimately, they end up sleeping apart.
Poots and Eisenberg prove to be a believable screen couple, whether they’re sniggering behind Martin’s back in the initial viewing or singing along to The Specials in their car – a song reprised later for a headlight-bathed dance that provides a rare moment of human chaos within the forced perfection of their new home. Eisenberg’s trademark jittery delivery and physical tics are deployed to enjoyably incongruous effect as he attempts to step up into an alpha male role, while Poots beautifully conveys her character’s struggle to balance her unease at their decidedly inhuman child and the maternal instinct that naturally pulls her into a position of nurturing.
Finnegan’s thesis is a compelling one – that the currently-mooted answer to the housing crisis is forcing everyone into exactly the same type of accommodation, and thus the same kind of life. Suburban house-building is the epitome of the pile-them-high-sell-them-cheap market trader ethos, selling an idea of aspiration that, in actuality, is more of a prison. Vivarium is framed as a sci-fi mystery, but it’s the satire that resonates in the wake of the ambiguous, but devastating finale. It’s about parenthood, family and the suffocating pressure of societal norms.
Finnegan’s movie is a carefully constructed ride of anxiety, in which characters suffer under the voyeuristic eye of the audience and of society as a whole, peeking into the vivarium of Yonder’s labyrinthine streets. Two stellar central performances – and the delightfully unsettling work of Senan Jennings – prove to be the perfect vectors for a clear and barbed allegory. Equally, in a time at which we’re all in the midst of virus-imposed isolation, the prospect of eerie silence and suburban loneliness hits with even more of a potent impact.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.