May 4, 2019
by Carla Hay
Directed by Daniel Schechter
World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 29, 2019.
UPDATE: “Safe Spaces” was retitled “After Class” after the movie was screened at multiple film festivals.
The dramedy “Safe Spaces” almost feels like it could have been two movies because so much is going on with the lead character, Josh Cohn, a 38-year-old adjunct professor in New York City who’s going through turmoil in his professional and personal lives. Justin Long is Josh in the movie, one of several films in which Long plays a single guy who’s unlucky in love. On the professional front, Josh’s job might be in jeopardy because of inappropriate sexual comments that he made in one of his classes. On the personal front, Josh’s beloved maternal grandmother (played by Lynn Cohen) is dying in a hospital, and he has to take shifts with bickering family members who are keeping vigil over her in her final days.
“Safe Spaces” (written and directed by Daniel Schechter) starts out showing the professional problem first. Josh teaches a creative writing class, and during a session with his students, he encourages a female student to share a personal story that might help her become a better writer. “Embarrass yourselves,” he tells the class. “Write what hurts.” When she confesses that an embarrassing sexual situation recently happened to her, Josh eggs her on to tell him and the class in detail what happened. She is very reluctant, but Josh insists that she tell, so she eventually reveals that when she was recently on a date with a guy, he asked if he could ejaculate on her rear end. (It’s described in much cruder terms in the movie.)
Instead of being mortified that he pressured someone to share this very explicit sexual information in a public setting, Josh is elated that she opened up in a candid way. That’s a red flag right there that Josh, especially in this #MeToo era, is socially clueless and has some serious issues with professional boundaries. Not surprisingly, a complaint is filed against him by one of the female students in his class—not the student who told the story, but another student who felt that Josh was being sexually intimidating and that he created a hostile environment in the class.
It turns out the student with the complaint was sexually assaulted in her past. She felt triggered by Josh’s behavior, and she no longer feels safe in his class because she thinks that he might pressure her and other female students to reveal sexual secrets too. Meanwhile, Josh is indignant because he feels that he didn’t do anything wrong. He thinks that because everyone in the class is an adult, they should have been able to handle that raw talk. His bosses recommend that he make an apology anyway, but he refuses. Several of his students then boycott his class to show solidarity to the student who complained. Josh’s job as an adjunct professor barely pays enough to cover his bills, so he’s feeling the financial pressure of possibly losing his job.
Meanwhile, Josh’s dysfunctional family is also giving him a lot of stress. His younger sister Jackie (played by Kate Berlant) is a flaky, pill-popping podcaster who unexpectedly shows up and crashes at his place because she needs a place to live. His married older brother David (played by Michael Godere) is still angry with Josh because Josh had a fling with the nanny (played by Megan Pickarski) hired to take care of David’s daughters (played by Kaitlyn and Emily Schechter), and the nanny left the job because the fling ended. David is the only person in the family to call out Josh for his pattern of irresponsible and selfish behavior. Meanwhile, Josh has begun dating a much-younger Eastern-European woman named Caterina (played by Sylvia Morigi), who likes to use dominatrix-type sexual techniques and who’s reluctant to fully commit to Josh.
Josh’s mother Diane (played by Fran Drescher) is still bitter over her divorce from Josh’s father Jeff (played by Richard Schiff), who left her for a younger woman named Sherry, who is now his current wife. Jeff has started a new life with Sherry (played by Dana Eskelson) and their bratty underage son Ben (played by Tyler Wladis), both of whom can’t stand Josh and his siblings. When Jeff was married to Diane, he was close to his mother-in-law, but since his current wife despises his first family, he’s torn about whether or not to visit his former mother-in-law before she dies. Josh and Jeff already have a lot of tension in their relationship, so the financially strapped Josh feels embarrassed when he has to ask Jeff for money to help pay his rent.
The “family problems” part of the movie is supposed to make Josh look more sympathetic, but it’s hard to feel much sympathy for a 38-year-old professor (in other words, he should know better) who uses his position of power to browbeat a student into revealing a sexual secret to the entire class. It’s inappropriate and aggressive, regardless of the gender of the student. What makes it worse is that Josh thinks the person who complained doesn’t deserve an apology. Even if he doesn’t think what he did was wrong, someone was seriously offended by his behavior, so it’s very problematic that he refuses to acknowledge that his actions hurt someone emotionally. It’s also a symptom of an arrogant sense of entitlement that comes from people who abuse their privileges.
The #MeToo movement has created a lot of resentment from people (mostly men) who used to get away with a lot of this type of behavior, and they’re quick to call people “uptight” or “too politically correct” if anyone objects to inappropriate sexual comments. This resentment is exemplified by two young male students who offer to mount a campaign on campus to defend Josh, who declines their help because he thinks it will make the situation worse.
In another conversation between Josh and another young male student, there’s an underlying “we hate politically correct culture” tone when the student complains that a story he wrote about a Jewish summer camp probably has to be changed because all of the people are white in his current draft of the story. Josh agrees, and then half-heartedly gives suggestions on who in the story could be of a different race. The dialogue in this part of the movie is written in such a cynical manner, they just might as well have come right out said, “This is what we have to go through now as white males. We have to force diversity in our work, or else we might be accused of being racist or sexist.”
What’s kind of dumb about this scene is that Josh doesn’t actually read the student’s story to see if the writing is any good. He just instantly reacts to the student’s paranoia that so-called politically correct vultures are out to get him. It’s obviously a reflection of how Josh feels about the complaint made against him in his job.
As if to further drive the point home that Josh is a symbol for “white men under siege in the #MeToo era,” the two supervisors overseeing Josh’s misconduct case are a white woman (played by Becky Ann Baker) and a man of Indian heritage (played by Samrat Chakrabarti). The white supervisor is more sympathetic to Josh than the non-white supervisor. These are not-so-subtle buttons that writer/director Schechter is pushing about how white men often see themselves when they’re accused of misconduct and how they’re judged if they offend women or people or color.
There’s an uncomfortable scene when Josh and his sister Jackie are out at a diner with their nieces, and they see the student who made the complaint, sitting at a nearby table. Jackie forces a confrontation, which makes things worse for Josh. The student naturally makes another complaint to the school, and Josh comes even closer to losing his job. He has another chance to make things right with the student. Will he do it?
Tensions in the family also come to a head when they are told that Josh’s grandmother has only a few days to live. Josh and his siblings put their squabbles aside to band together, go to their father Jeff’s home, and try to convince him to go with them to the hospital to say goodbye to their grandmother. Jeff’s wife Sherry, who’s portrayed as cold-hearted and jealous, gives Jeff an extreme ultimatum: If you go to the hospital with your children, our marriage is over. Will he do it?
“Safe Spaces” isn’t a bad movie (the best scenes are the ones with Josh’s grandmother), and the lead character Josh isn’t a bad person. He just isn’t interesting enough to care about for most of this film. If you like the type of Woody Allen-inspired movies that are filled with neurotic, privileged New Yorkers who create their own problems and seem to be addicted to personal chaos, then “Safe Spaces” is the movie for you.
UPDATE: Gravitas Ventures, which changed the name of this movie from “Safe Spaces” to “After Class,” will release the movie in select U.S. theaters and on home video on December 6, 2019.