Gemma (Imogen Poots) and Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) are pretty ordinary. She’s a cheerful kindergarten teacher; he’s a genial gardener. They want to buy a starter home, somewhere to live peacefully, maybe start a family.
So they do what any reasonable young couple would do: They talk to a real estate agent. The agent is odd and creepy but promises he has the perfect place for them. Soon, they’re living in a newly built suburban community, full of rows of simple houses built to starter-home specifications: picket fence, a yard in the front and back, cheerful but soulless.
Before long, something very strange occurs, as they suddenly discover they can’t get away. They seem to be alone in their new neighborhood, filled with look-alike, rubber-stamp homes. And then one day a baby shows up in a box.
Eerie and surprising, Vivarium takes a common cinematic theme — “the suburbs will eat your soul” — and turns it into high-concept horror, anchored by great performances from Eisenberg and Poots. Director Lorcan Finnegan brings a stylized sensibility to Garret Shanley’s screenplay, which gleefully injects surreality into Tom and Gemma’s new life. Time moves at a confusing pace. Their child doesn’t act like a child. The clouds look so perfect that they’re unnerving. Nothing changes, and everything changes.
The film’s title refers to a particular kind of enclosed natural space in which creatures are kept under observation, allowed to live their lives but without the same kind of freedom they might have in the wild. (A terrarium is a type of vivarium; an aquarium is as well.) It’s where an animal’s natural habitat is simulated but not allowed to flourish untended — an experiment of sorts.
Tom and Gemma’s new house is painted green; each room inside is a different jewel tone in shades of green, blue, and brown that recall natural settings. (There’s a painting hanging on one wall, and it’s of the house itself.) It’s almost as if they’re contained in a terrarium of their own. So that, coupled with the title, is a clue to Vivarium’s familiar judgment, albeit done with a spin: that polite, middle-class, suburban society, with all its accoutrements, is a trap. Not because things like houses, children, and routine are themselves a trap, but because the demands they make can drown out things like individuality and a flourishing existence.
There’s a lot more beneath the Twilight Zone-like surface of Vivarium, if you scratch at it, from ideas about malevolent forces keeping us in a social experiment to some funny but chilling acknowledgement that children, sponge-like, grow up to be like their parents. But though it verges on the overstuffed at times, Vivarium is dirty, sinister, hair-raising, and thoroughly entertaining — and completely worth a watch if you’re feeling a little, well, trapped.