Director: Lorcan Finnegan
Stars: Imogen Poots, Jessie Eisenberg, Eanna Hardwicke
Vivarium might appear shrewdly, even cruelly timed; arriving on streaming platforms in the midst of a pandemic that has restricted whole nations to their homes. For here we have an elusive and intriguing domestic nightmare about a young couple trapped at home… seemingly forever. However, it’s just the irony of timing. The film first screened on the festival circuit last year, and has been intended for a spring release for quite some time.
Gemma (Imogen Poots) and Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) are said couple, thinking of getting themselves their first place together. Like many millennials and Gen-Zers (their ages are not specified), one of the more affordable options available to them is a new build on a rather featureless new housing estate. They visit the retail outlet for Yonder Homes, where they meet oddball salesman Martin (Jonathan Aris). He shows them to an idyllic neighbourhood (“near enough and far enough, just the right distance”) of boxy little detached houses all painted a rather eerie dental green. When Martin disappears, Gemma and Tom find themselves lost in a labyrinth of identical streets with no clear exit.
Seemingly stuck alone in the blandest iteration of suburbia, the couple are then surprised and disturbed by the arrival of a baby in a box – all of their necessities arrive in boxes. Within days the baby boy has become a young child, though his behaviour is sometimes positively inhuman. Tom is cold, even violent toward ‘It’. Though Gemma, while still hostile to their captivity, can’t help but find her mothering instinct taking over.
Vivarium intrigued with its impressive array of beautiful teaser posters, its hip casting (these actors are always worth watching) and its coldly surreal premise. Marking Lorcan Finnegan’s second feature, this is an effective and disquieting piece that excels in spite of the limitations of its budget and setting. Yonder Homes never looks particularly legitimate. It has a craft project feel, a construction-paper DIY aesthetic that recalls some of the music video work of Michel Gondry (particularly Bjork’s “Bachelorette” which features plays performed within plays, all telling the same story; a similar sense of doomed repetition).
The mechanics of what’s actually happening are left quite deliberately vague, though several clues invite you to draw your own conclusions. What is clear is a strong set of metaphors about the empty package that is modern domesticity. It is hard-wired into most of us to want a certain set of things. The tick-boxes of life. A partner. A house. A child. A career. Gemma and Tom find themselves force-fed the endgame of these desires but with all the desirable upsides removed. Not only do they not have their freedoms, but the food is tasteless, the air has no breeze. Yonder Homes is a facsimile. It openly suggests that what is dreamed of is often more vivid than the mundane reality.
Though they attempt to escape, Gemma and Tom’s conditioning means that they dutifully fall into preconceived roles. Tom manages to get himself a day-job, obsessively digging up the garden because it puts him to good use (a neat little summary of a meaningless life in employment). Gemma, meanwhile takes on the ’50s housewife persona – sitting bored waiting for the laundry to finish and taking care of the kid (who runs a close second behind the boy from The Babadook as the most obnoxious screen child in recent memory).
With so many young people facing financial instability, Vivarium also works as an impression of what it’s like to be on the outside looking in. To those for whom actual home-ownership and residency is a seemingly forever-distant goal, actual achievement might well start to feel as alien as the snowglobe world of Yonder Heights. There might be no getting out, but there’s no getting in either – at least, not without some unseen or divine(?) intervention.
Mercifully, the movie is quite funny. Poots channels her inner weirdo quite happily, humanising Gemma, which becomes a lifeline to the film. Tom’s belligerent behaviour toward the ‘child’ is darkly comic and will provide anyone not enamoured by kids some lascivious glee. But Vivarium tends toward jet black humour, with a final act that sings in companionship to the often downbeat endings of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror. In keeping with the sterile neatness of his planned ‘community’, Finnegan’s film is neatly framed, minimal, but with beautiful attention to little details. It’s an eerie, small triumph of the nightmares of privilege. But it might make you even more anxious to get outside.