Gemma is a teacher, good with the children in her care but happy to leave them and the classroom behind at the end of the working day; her boyfriend Tom works in the grounds of the school, coming down from the trees he has been tending as they take the first step in climbing the property ladder, an affordable starter home for the two of them.
Their first stop is an oddly enthusiastic estate agent who is determined to show them a home which they know will be out of their reach, both financially and in terms of their current needs, but he is persuasive and it will not hurt to look, so he conducts them to Yonder, “a wonderful development, located near enough, and far enough, just the right distance.”
Led by Martin through the immaculate streets of newly built identikit homes to number nine, with the garden furniture laid out on the trimmed lawn, Gemma and Tom look around but do not connect with the property, but abandoned by Martin find themselves unable to navigate out of the estate, travelling without moving, any direction they take guiding them back to number nine as though they were scrolling across the screen of a videogame.
Directed by Without Name’s Lorcan Finnegan from a script written by Garret Shanley based on the storyline developed in conjunction with Finnegan, Vivarium takes the sense of disorientation and dislocation of his first feature and places it in the setting which echoes his earlier short Foxes, a deserted housing estate whose untouched perfection only underlies the sinister inhumanity of the environment.
Immaculate boxes of tastefully furnished habitation stretching in rows beneath the perfect clouds which spot the sky, trapped within as Gemma and Tom are Green Room’s Imogen Poots and The Hummingbird Project’s Jesse Eisenberg, coping with admirable resilience to their inexplicable situation, a fractured simulacrum of congenial domesticity with no company or distraction other than themselves until the arrival.
“Raise the child and be released” is the only instruction, but it is a burden which neither of them wanted and which is ultimately not theirs to bear, a Midwich cuckoo in the nest, its growth unnatural and its behaviour less human than a form of mimicry, taking the worst of its foster parents and throwing it back at them without respite, Tom coming to regard it as a “creepy little mutant.”
Shown at the Glasgow Film Festival at a screening hosted by Finnegan and Poots, the director described Vivarium as a “surreal, funny look at social contracts,” and beneath the façade of the suburban dream of the nuclear family in their ideal home is the growing nightmare of captivity, two intelligent adults in a constructed simulation which neither of them want and from which they cannot escape, always watched by the monstrous child which dominates their lives.
Their daily routine encompassing breakfast, childcare, dinner, brushing teeth and bedtime, a repetition as inevitable as the pattern on the kitchen lino, the tumbling wash cycle, the houses themselves, only the fractal broadcasts on the television are a deviation, as incomprehensible to Gemma and Tom as the child who is fixated on the only apparent communication from outside Yonder, another layer in the mystery of Vivarium where nothing is concealed yet the purpose is as impenetrable as if it were behind glass.
Vivarium is on general release from Friday 27th March