With their feature film debut, director Andrew Patterson and his co-writer Craig W. Sanger have made an idiosyncratic splash with the micro budget yet winning sci-fi mystery, The Vast Of Night. Set in 1950s small town New Mexico, the film begins with a Twilight Zone style introduction as we push in on an old fashioned television. The main story, the film-within-the-film, centers around two teens who one night discover a strange signal at their respective jobs as a radio host and a switchboard operator. Have aliens invaded or perhaps the Soviets? With the rest of the town at the local high school basketball game, can the two of them save humanity?
While admittedly, the story feels very slight, the charm lies in the telling. Patterson, along with his resourceful cinematographer, M.I. Littin-Menz, go for long, sometimes swooping, sometimes static takes which allow us to immerse ourselves in this world. We first meet Everett (Jake Horowitz), a talk radio host at WOTW (War Of The Worlds, anyone?) as the camera follows behind him as he’s summoned to the gymnasium to help with an electrical problem. Cocky, immensely self-assured, Everett talks fast as he lopes from one interaction to the next. He invites Fay (Sierra McCormick), the aforementioned telephone operator, to tag along and show him a new tape recorder she’s purchased. Fay, although much more naive than Everett, possesses an inviting sense of wonder about the new technology. He goads her on to interview various people in their cars in a sweetly charming sequence. What seems like a throwaway scene actually cuts to the heart of the film, which, to me, is about the joy one experiences when you discover a like-minded person who feels thrilled by anything new and unknown. I could watch Everett and Fay banter all night, which is exactly what you get with this film. Because they’re so delightful, it’s easy to enjoy their discussions about future tech like cell phones, GPS, and self-driving cars, all of which would have felt too on-the-nose with lesser filmmakers and actors. Horowitz and McCormick have wonderful chemistry and make a great impression so early in their careers.
As the two go off to their night jobs, we stop with Fay for a stunning, long single take as she patches calls in until the fateful signal comes across her switchboard. McCormick proves adept at holding our attention through what could have felt like a monotonous scene. As she involves Everett in this mystery, the filmmakers go on a fantastic flight of fancy as the camera glides past Fay, whooshes through the town, makes a pit stop at the basketball game and ends up in the WOTW radio station as Everett involves himself in the story. It’s amazing what one can do on a tiny budget when you have such resourceful filmmakers.
Eventually, we get another set piece involving a Black man named Billy (Bruce Davis) who calls in to provide some information key to the origins of the strange signal. Much of it is told with the screen blacked out, emphasizing the radio show feel of this story. As Billy very calmly tells his long tale, Everett and Fay listen intently, slowly realizing that Black voices very rarely get heard in their world. It’s an important moment in the film as our heroes learn how secrets remain secrets when held by an oppressed minority who nobody would give the time of day. Somewhere in this film lies a message about what little progress we’ve made since, but it does get overshadowed by the almost rom-com nature of our central relationship.
The film gets more intense from here on out, leading to another eerie encounter or two and a cathartic yet subtle ending. With its high school background and one horse town qualities, the film reminded me of Peter Bogdanovich’s masterpiece, The Last Picture Show, mixed with Orson Welles’ radio broadcast of The War Of The Worlds. Like Picture Show, you learn every inch of this town and like the radio show, your imagination fills in the eerie blanks of a story told mainly in darkness or on the faces of our two leads.
Much of the 1950s aimed to keep the population in fear. People feared the communists, nuclear war, and emerging social changes. Everett and Fay represent the hope of a future where what we fear is also what excites us the most. This little film, with virtually no big special effects, filled me with a sense of wonder and awe.
By Glenn Gaylord, Senior Film Critic
The Vast Of Night is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.