There is a literary sensibility to Juan Felipe Zuleta’s directorial debut, Unidentified Objects, that operates in the tradition of an invisible reality. A frenetic alien abductee-come-camgirl named Winona (Sarah Hay) awakens her neighbor, a gay, misanthropic little-person named Peter (Matthew Jeffers), in the early morning with a desperate plea: she needs to borrow his car so that she can drive north to Canada and be re-abducted by aliens. Peter, unemployed and hyper-isolated because of the pandemic, agrees to lend Winona, who doesn’t have a license, his car. The only problem is that his car is not his car; it’s the hot-pink Jeep of his since-deceased friend, a fellow little-person and close confidante who died by suicide the year prior. Winona rashly steals the Jeep and the pair go on their way, Winona running from her past on foot, Peter running from his on pills. The result is a charming story that effortfully tries to spotlight otherwise overlooked members of society.
In interviews, Zuleta has said that he was heavily influenced by Alfonso Cuarón and David Lynch, and without prompting, the influence of the former is telegraphic; Unidentified Objects lives in the lineage of road films like Y Tu Mama Tambien or American classics like Badlands. The Lynchian influences are sparing, but just as clear, too: the viewer exists in small towns, through characters at the fringe of society, and in brief moments, among surrealist beings in spandex costumes. The strength of Unidentified Objects is in its attempt to subvert a genre formula that has become flat in reiteration. Its weakness is that it is unable to commit to doing so.
There are moments in this film, often accompanied by a synth-heavy score and neon pink lights, where it feels like it might break the threshold of restrained reality and enter a world of nonsense that is, paradoxically, able to reflect the senselessness — for beauty or for suffering — of the world in which we live. This is the singular poetry of David Lynch, and something Zuleta, while promising, does not allow himself to do. Anytime it feels like Zuleta might finally release his reigns on reality, and in turn, take complete control of the creative vision of the film, he reels back to reality, then reels back some more, grounding the film in a sober stillness to a confusing and cheapening effect on both its reality and its fantasy.
Reality is what comprises most of this film, and in its reality it is different in very few ways than traditional road films; there are two oddballs in tension, a growing warmth, a vehicle breakdown, an interaction with strangers that strengthens a bond, a scene in a bar, the ramifications of the activities at that bar, a blow-up (catharsis, the strengthening of a bond near its critical point), and the following denouement. Unidentified Objects hits all of these beats over its one hour and 40 minutes in a sterile modality that subdues its emotional depth. These beats are easy, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing: they tend to work. The issue with “Unidentified Objects” is that it seems to coast on an inertia of precedence that makes the film feel incomplete as an independent body of art. The viewer is thrust into the world of these characters with little-to-no exposition, leaving them wondering: Why this? Why now?
This curiosity is quickly smoothed over by the charming distinction of the two leads, but it isn’t without the ramification of the film never gaining a personal tension that amounts to the emotional catharsis or purity the film vies to reach for. It also results in the feeling that the lack of exposition is compensated for in Peter’s character, his past, his inner world, in turn pushing Winona to the background, and ironically making her sex-working character feel like an object or a prop, rather than the dynamic person she ventures to offer.
The uneven emotional weight of Unidentified Objects says nothing of the ambition, and sporadic beauty, of Zuleta’s relatively strong debut. The cosmic landscapes of the introduction are gorgeous, and many moving shots contort depth and perspective to create a truly unique and fantastical distorting effect; it makes the world feel alien, and in this estrangement, truly beautiful. The acting is generally very strong, too. Jeffers and Hay play off one another well and build a convincing relationship, even if during moments of lingering observations they overstretch themselves into over-acting to a melodramatic effect. So while Zuleta may not subvert or innovate the well-traveled path of the American road film, this fact remains: he has challenged himself to make a socially daring debut that is just fantastical and provocative enough for us to enter its orbit, to look at this self-contained galaxy through the tint of his viewfinder, and to emerge back into the sameness of our old world with a new sense of wonderment and estrangement.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 23.
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