As any first-time homebuyer will know, finding an affordable, desirable property in today’s housing market can be an extreme ordeal. For young couple Gemma (Imogen Poots) and Tom (Jesse Eisenberg), searching for a suitable property turns into a literal nightmare when they become entrapped in a labyrinth-like neighbourhood of identical houses. Lorcan Finnegan’s sophomore feature is a surreal, unnerving minimalist sci-fi with satirical bite.
Vivarium starts with teacher Gemma and handyman Tom casually looking for their first home when they encounter bizarre estate agent Martin (Jonathan Aris). After a peculiarly enthusiastic sales pitch, the couple reluctantly agree to follow Martin to a new suburban housing development called Yonder. When Martin disappears during the tour the couple decide to hastily flee the site of this weird, completely unoccupied settlement of identical houses. Following multiple failed escape attempts, it starts to dawn on the couple that they have been trapped in this never-ending domestic prison. When an otherworldly baby boy is delivered to them with the instructions ‘Raise the child and be released’, the couple begin to release the true purpose of this abnormal suburbia.
One of Vivarium’s most memorable elements is its imaginative production design which helps sustain a tone of compelling strangeness. Production designer Philip Murphy skilfully uses practical effects and green screen to compose an eerie, synthetic world where every sickly green house is indistinguishable and unnervingly perfect clouds hang in the same place all day. There’s an unsettling sheen of artificiality to Yonder which is perfectly complemented by Kristian Eidnes Andersen’s tense, fidgety score.
The film drops you into this suburban hellscape almost immediately, leaving Gemma and Tom’s relationship feeling slightly underdeveloped. But Poots and Eisenberg’s committed performances help install an authenticity in their characters. Poots particularly shines with an emotionally proficient turn, which expertly portrays Gemma’s increasing desperation and conflicting feelings towards the young boy. While human in appearance the kid exhibits freakish behaviour, uncannily mimicking other people’s actions and growing at a supernatural pace. Senan Jennings puts in a creepy turn as the young boy whose interactions with his surrogate parents start off amusingly odd but evolve into something genuinely chilling.
Although the script is slightly repetitive at times, which may well be the point, it has plenty of intriguing, resonant themes thread throughout it. Finnegan’s whole premise is a satire on the impossibility of getting a foot on the property ladder in today’s market and a damning critique of domesticity as a mundane, life-sucking existence which slowly grinds you down. Though the film’s outlook is relentlessly grim it’s undercut with welcome dashes of sardonic humour.
Some audiences will be put off by Vivarium’s strange tone and bleak world view, but for those willing to embrace its distortions they’ll be rewarded with a nightmarish, idiosyncratic trip.