Sitges 2022 Review: UNIDENTIFIED OBJECTS, Close Encounter of the Queer Kind
The road trip movie is tailor-made for the journey of self discovery; more so perhaps in North America, where the distances are long, the population sparse, and the lack of anything to do besides face yourself dominates. This can be even more important when those on the journey are strangers, each with a different goal and reaching for something seemingly unattainable. Both the journey and the destination matter, even if the result is unexpected.
Unidentified Objects falls into the 'odd couple road trip' subgenre, but rather than the tyipical broad comedy tone, evokes a more off-kilter, fantastical atmosphere. In their feature debut, director Juan Felipe Zuleta and writer Leland Frankel work very hard to weave this tale, but perhaps sometimes can't see the forest for the trees. The result is a mixed bag: there are some missed narrative opportunities, inaccurate geography, and maybe just a few too driving montages, but also an outstanding central performance and journey, and several moments of captivating strangeness and wonder.
To say that Peter (Matthew August Jeffers) is a misanthrope is something of an understatement, though his demeanor is perhaps understandable: he is highly intelligent, well educated, gay, and a little person. This combination means he's pretty lonely, his closest friend having died recently enough that the wound is still raw. His neighbour Winona (Sarah Hay) suddenly appears at his door with an offer of money if he can drive her to Labrador City for a visit with her sister (or did she say mother?) in three days time. Desperate for cash, he has strict rules but agrees, possibly stealing said late best friend's car and setting off from New York with lots of doubts.
And those doubts are founded, as Winona eventually reveals that she was kidnapped by aliens years ago, and now they're coming back for her, sending her the coordinates to this remote location. Winona is an outsider as well, a sometime sex worker whose past hints at something dark, which she constantly covers up. Hay manages to mostly keep her on the good side of annoying, though Peter takes long to warm to Winona's charms, as the journey gives him the opportunity to examine his choices, the limitations set on him by society, and the limitations he sets on himself.
Like any road trip movie, there are fun moments filled with weirdness, such as their backroads, illegal, snail-pace drive across the border; the random encounter with friendly cosplayers on a lonely stretch of road; and Peter's growing fondness for Winona, as it dawns on him that her story of aliens might not be entirely inaccurate. As this strange woman coaxes out of his self-imposed isolation, Peter begins to understand how he's let himself become so miserable, and how he has buried his grief and let it fester.
But then the energy slumps with a few too many unnecessary montages and drone shots of the car driving through the landscape, time that could be filled getting to know Winona a little better, for example (we get a brief clue as to what she is leaving behind, but it's never examined satisfactorily and we're left with more questions about her than we should have). And it's a landscape decidely not in the direction of Labrador City; presumably the location was chosen for a reason (mostly how isolated it is), and yet even a cursary glance at a map would have them travelling deep through western Quebec, a region where almost no english is spoken, and where you can go hundreds of kilometers without a single home, far from the constant farmlands and people that our duo encounter. They never really leave American-style civilization, and it feel like another opportunity to deepen the themes of isolation, loneliness, and feeling a apart from the world, was missed, given what the location could have offered.
Jeffers is a wonder and a joy as Peter; he anchors the film in some of his own experience, while finding that uniqueness in Peter's very odd situation and the nuance of his personality. When he's having a dream that exposes him both figuratively and literally, when he takes a chance on an intimate connection, Jeffers is unafraid to show Peter as an angry and vulnerable man, slowly finding a way to show his heart again, even as the world still doesn't always accept it.
Unidentified Objects doesn't quite hit all of its objectives, missing opportunities that it sets up - the true reason behind Winona's decision to flee, the vastness strangeness and foreigness of their presumed route that would offer opportunites for thematic exploration. But it is anchored by a stellar central performance, and a love for the journey for these two lost souls who find (even if it's momentary) solace and companionship in each other.
- Juan Felipe Zuleta
- Leland Frankel
- Juan Felipe Zuleta
- Sarah Hay
- Matthew Jeffers
- Roy Abramsohn