Gemma (Imogen Poots) and Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) are a young couple looking for a home. They come across a real estate office marketing the territory Yonder, which promises “Quality family homes. Forever.” After blithely ignoring the horrifying slogan, they find all the houses look exactly alike, and they’re completely devoid of residents. The realtor, Martin (Jonathan Aris), abandons them, and they’re unable to leave. They drive around in circles until their car runs out of gas, yet no matter what they do, they end up back at the house Martin showed them. They’re provided with boxes of supplies, but also a baby, with the message “Raise the child and be released.” The house is indestructible, but Tom distracts himself by digging a hole in the yard. The two of them are miserable, and their oddly fast-growing young charge (who starts bearing a disconcerting physical resemblance to Martin) doesn’t help.
Vivarium documents the sometimes cruel aspects of nature, opening with a cuckoo pushing its competition out of the nest so it can eat all the worms. The movie doesn’t take a friendly look at marriage or parenthood either, with Gemma and Tom forced into roles they don’t want and their lives reduced to a narrow routine they loathe: brush their teeth, eat, dig, sleep, get up and do it all again. The cyclical nature of family life is really emphasized in one scene: Gemma slumps in front of the spinning dryer while the nameless kid they’re raising, credited as Young Boy (Senan Jennings), runs around in circles. Barking. Because he’s an asshole.
Gemma tries to get some enjoyment out of and convey some compassion to the child, but Tom doesn’t disguise the fact that he hates him and spends all day digging to avoid being around him. At one point Gemma discovers that their car’s battery still works, and they dance to the radio. Young Boy comes out and tries to join them, really bringing home the message that kids ruin everything.
Tom and Gemma are quite likable. Tom is funny, and Gemma is kind. They bicker, but their love for each other is apparent throughout. They continuously come across as sympathetic, even though they’re mostly crappy parents to Young Boy. He really is the worst. As Gemma says, “That boy is always watching.” They don’t provide a good role model for the kid, who is constantly mimicking them (in their own voices, nonetheless), but he doesn’t give them any peace or time to regroup.
It’s not a scary film per se, but it has a disturbing premise. Creepily, the reason for trapping people in Yonder is never overtly revealed. According to dictionary.com, a vivarium is “a place, such as a laboratory, where live animals or plants are kept under conditions simulating their natural environment, as for research”, so presumably someone or something is studying them, but why? (There are theories online, like this one.) I totally never thought of it, but while looking for images for this post, I saw some reviewers are commenting on how the movie “nails the feeling of social isolation”. It was released on March 27, 2020, which is a week after lockdown started in my neck of California, so the timing is pretty apt. But if you’re looking for escapism, it’s still weird and unpredictable enough to keep your attention off of viruses.