Review: Unidentified Objects (Fantastic Fest 2022)

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Title: Unidentified Objects
MPAA Rating: Not Yet Rated
Director: Juan Felipe Zuleta
Starring: Sarah Hay, Matthew Jeffers, Roy Abramsohn
Runtime: 1 hr 40 mins

What It Is: A mysterious, free-spirited young woman named Winona (Hay) bribes her curmudgeon neighbor Peter (Jeffers) to borrow his car and drive the both of them out to where she believes she will be abducted by aliens. Although reluctant, Peter agrees on the condition he can visit a river his deceased friend had wanted to go to. Together they ride on a tumultuous journey as Peter’s anti-social personality gets in the way of their moving forward while finding Winona’s bold insistence on bonding and building a friendship annoying and challenging.

What We Think: A tale that mixes the genre of indie quirky instantaneous road trip drama with existentialist drama–what was done right, and what could have been better? It’s a tougher film to tackle considering its oftentimes heavier and real-life applicable subject matter. In the times that it does decide to challenge the viewer, the performances prove just how central they are to the film as a whole–as opposed to the delivery, which can be appreciated in certain nuances while could have been more polished or established in other means. It seems the film wants us to really approach its style as if it were something more classical and reliant on the script, much like films from the 70s–The Graduate and Midnight Cowboy come to mind as possible inspirations for the heaviness of the dialogue and push for character work.

I’m a fan of Sarah Hayes’s previous works, particularly in the twisted, trippy psychological horror Braid. Here, she plays a Dolly-esque, high-pitched, manic-pixie, free-spirited, quirky, otherworldy, genuinely kind, faintly ditzy Winona, someone who hyper fixates over her motivation and has all the answers to practically every social situation as a street-smart woman. We feel we might see this character in a 70s or 80s film, plainly a character meant to be liked and cared for, and quick enough to whip out humourous quips. Her foil is Peter, played by Matthew Jeffers with believable frustration and hesitation as someone lives with significantly less advantage and privilege than Winona. He proves himself to be an extreme curmudgeon as he tends to let his overarching setbacks get in the way of positive experiences, a lesson in self-growth and awareness, which I think was played out really close to the heart. Peter’s life is much different than Winona’s, and in the midst of grieving his friend, he’s also made up his mind he will never find his place, find love, and find happiness. Winona tries to subvert this, which he strongly objects to. Most of the film is stuck with Peter, while Winona pushes hard to make the trip a positive one, Peter repeatedly leads them into trouble because of his pointedly sour attitude. You see he has every right to be angry, depressed, and bitter over his circumstances, and in some deeply troubling or intense scenes, we see his fears and needs fully played out. Because of his life and the cards he dealt, he continues to push back only to test the good that’s left in him, reflected in Winona.

The themes and story itself are a blueprint for a great movie. My largest critique is unfortunately the impact of the film as a whole suffers from its delivery. The dialogue often feels somewhat stiff or forced (the more personal scenes aside), and the characters, which feel like they should be far more iconic and relatable sometimes feel like they come from decades-old clichés (namely Winona, whose character is as she’s summed up to be). The character arcs feel a bit awkwardly placed as well. You feel the potential in everything this film has to give and offer, with some incredibly pleasant performances between two powerhouse actors, I hope to see the follow-up from the filmmakers isn’t afraid to be more stylized and polished, perhaps even playing more towards realism rather than resorting to misfit inserts of magical reality in order to make the story far more profound and memorable.

Our Grade: C+, At times dawdling and other times, painfully fascinating, this movie borders on being bad but brings enough personality through its actors to carry their characters through a strange, random, and tense odyssey as they navigate loneliness and rejection. It swings from being inconsequentially grating to melodramatic and awkward when its punches should be packing heavier. We see glimpses of greatness overshadowed by the feeling of marks being checked off on a list directed towards grinding its audience into empathetic submission, rather than letting a more solid script speak for itself. And while I’m being rather hard on this film, I hope to see better projects and improvements come from it, and hopefully make up for its drawbacks.

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