TEXAS, USA — You needn’t look further than the title of Juan Felipe Zuleta’s feature-length debut, “Unidentified Objects,” for a hint at the aspirations of this idiosyncratic road-trip dramedy, one which overcomes scrappy beginnings to locate sparks of beauty in its genre-inflected ambiguities. It could just as well have been called “Unidentifiable Objects,” if not for the fact that that subtle rewording introduces something absolute to a cosmically – almost fatally – sweet-natured two-hander that, on the contrary, blossoms with a sense of possibility just incisive enough to rework its most tired clichés into something more insightful.
Possibility asserts itself in the casting of Matthew Jeffers, a little person with a smattering of credits to his name anchoring a full-length movie for the first time, doing so with the caustic intensity of someone isolating himself from the world before the world has a chance to do the same to him. It was earlier this year that Peter Dinklage’s mere involvement in the florid romance of “Cyrano” gave director Joe Wright’s otherwise classical adaptation urgency anew; Jeffers accomplishes something similar for the scifi-lite adventures “Unidentified Objects” takes after through his performance of a gay and unfiltered little person defined as much by what’s exerted as by what’s internalized. We don’t really know why Jeffers’s Peter insists on joining his neighbor, Winona (Sarah Hay), for a road trip she’s desperate to make. But we understand he recognizes opportunity when he sees it.
In other words, he recognizes possibility when it comes knocking on his door. The movie that unfolds after Peter answers the call is one that’s often constrained by the same road-trip-movie tropes it’s trying to bust out of; its requisite mile-marker encounters are sometimes dutifully zany, and sometimes refreshingly vivid.
As for where Winona is driving them in the Pepto Bismol-pink SUV, well... it's not entirely clear. Zuleta’s screenplay (a collaboration with Leland Frankel) throws a wrench into genre machinery by marking the story’s progress not by geographic proximity but through recurring timecards counting down to an ambiguous “abduction”—a decision that saps “Unidentified Objects” of much-needed thrust while leaving open the potential for grander implications.
Winona initially isn’t the most trustworthy partner, her frazzled persona threatening to do the duo in. But Hay is a dynamic enough actress to make us wonder where her character is coming from when she talks excitedly about a mysterious rendezvous that awaits via the cosmos above. Is she enlightened, or merely cuckoo? That might be besides the point in a story about a man acutely aware of his own limitations being pulled into the gravitational field of a woman who’s long made peace with ignoring her own. “Unidentified Objects,” perhaps unsurprisingly, works best as a character study of two unlikely platonic partners, who herald from the same unlikely place of longing.
Thankfully, this cinematic trip embraces its intimacy the further it ventures into colorfully surreal territory. The project may clearly be one of limited resources, but Zuleta doesn’t trip over himself imagining what “Unidentified Objects” could look like with a ballooned budget (even if the occasional flare-up of menacing ambience threatens to betray more grandiose pivots). Instead he makes do by keeping things firmly tethered to Earthly matters; to voyages of self-acceptance told through a story that, while certainly not hurtling at the speed of light, is all the more effective for its keen and consistent focus on character.
That said, the pair’s inevitable opening up to each other feels perfunctory at best, backed by familiar alt-rock hits, soaring shots of tree-lined Canadian highway and Zuleta’s tendency to opt for dramatic shorthand; an unfulfilled promise from Peter’s past only seems like a crucial bit of information, until it’s smothered by his and Winona’s most immediate obstacles.
What Zuleta struggles to accomplish with his rough-hewn writing, however, is more or less balanced out by the young director’s visual knack for enveloping viewers into his characters’ psyches while they're at their most emotionally turbulent. A pair of standout single-take sequences later in “Unidentified Objects” see him making a more-than-admirable attempt at measuring up to his most technically proficient contemporaries, namely in the adroit movements of the camera and the trust Zuleta places in Jeffers to take charge of a climactic moment of revelation. The movie’s final third makes the movie’s best case for Zuleta as a director as he provides a poignant suggestion that one is just as likely to recognize their place on Earth by looking within as by looking up.
The confident, lightly heartbreaking path that “Unidentified Objects” opts to take in the closing moments goes a long way towards disguising Zuleta’s sometimes-frustrating emphasis on the unknowables of his story that he all but proclaims unimportant. Some moviegoers are bound to be disappointed by its no-clear-answers conclusion. Not me; I appreciated how he doesn’t tug the spotlight away from Jeffers for a predictable bit of spectacle, instead allowing his star the space to turn restraint into its own poignant, cosmic advantage.
"Unidentified Objects" is awaiting distribution.
Starring: Matthew Jeffers, Sarah Hay, Hamish Allan-Headley.
Directed by Juan Felipe Zuleta. Written by Zuleta and Leland Frankel.
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