By a strange twist of scheduling the first two films I’ve reviewed from Fantastic Fest, Unidentified Objects and Everyone Will Burn have something in common, they both have main characters who have dwarfism. It’s the kind of coincidence that, while meaningless in the real world, would probably mean something significant in the strange world where Unidentified Objects takes place.
Along with being a dwarf, Peter (Matthew Jeffers, New Amsterdam, Exit Interview) is gay and currently unemployed. He’s also tired of the treatment that he gets for being different and tends to avoid people. That doesn’t stop Winona (Sarah Hay, The Mortuary Collection, Mid-Century) from knocking on his door asking for a favour, a ride to Canada. It seems the aliens who abducted her when she was fifteen are coming back for her and she needs to go meet them. I guess they couldn’t get a visa to go to the US to get her. After initially refusing Peter realizes he has his own reason to make the trip which, along with the money she’s offering, convinces him to go.
I can pretty much hear you saying it now, “Not another indie film about an odd couple on a road trip”. And while that’s exactly what Unidentified Objects is, director Juan Felipe Zuleta (Project Fydika, Commission) and co-writer Leland Frankel (Mars Home Planet, Devil’s Claw) give the film a few touches that help set it apart from the rest.
While one might expect the film to be shot through Winona’s eyes, she’s the one getting abducted after all, but it isn’t. And UFOs actually don’t play that big of a role in Unidentified Objects the plot. This is Peter’s story and we see the trip from his perspective, however grim and anti-social that might be. And, even if his own actions haven’t always helped his situation, he has every reason to be soured on dealing with people. Rather than the standard comic grump, his attitude feels genuine and earned.
That doesn’t mean that Winona is reduced to a mere manic pixie character. She has her own story and character arc separate from the effect she has on Peter. She’s also not played off as comic relief, Zuleta and Frankel treat her with much more seriousness than many filmmakers would give to a sex worker who is insistent about keeping an appointment with aliens.
Neither character is softened or sugar coated to make them a more conventionally likeable lead, a risky move on the part of the filmmakers. The way they react to the various people they meet on their trip is in character for them, even if that reaction is an unlikable or totally inappropriate one. And being a road movie the encounters in Unidentified Object are quite varied and range from Suzee (Kerry Flanagan, Power Book III: Raising Kanan, The Scottish Play) a friend of Winona’s who guides them to a covert border crossing while tripping her ass off to Peter’s encounter with a handsome stranger (Hamish Allan-Headley, Mayor of Kingstown, Thinly Veiled) in a bar they stop at.
Cinematographer Camilo Monsalve (The City of Wild Beasts, Groove) and composer Sebastian Zuleta (There Are No Saints, Asura) also deserve mention for providing the sounds and images that help Unidentified Object walk the occasionally very fine line between a sort of magical realism and actual reality.
Ultimately, Unidentified Objects is a tale of self-discovery and if not quite one of redemption then one of taking the first steps on the road to it. The ambiguous final scene, like most of the rest of the film, may not give any concrete answers but it raises hopeful possibilities.
Unidentified Objects is playing as part of this year’s edition of Fantastic Fest. You can check the festival’s website for screening times and ticket information.