If you enjoyed Take Shelter, Midnight Special, Bug, and Safety Not Guaranteed, four films which had you wondering if the sci-fi events depicted were real or a result of of a mental break, then you may respond to director Juan Felipe Zuleta and writer Leland Frankel’s Unidentified Objects, Outfest LA’s U.S. Centerpiece. Otherwise, your mileage may vary.
Matthew Jeffers stars as Peter, a little person and gay man with intense anger issues, an unhappy past, and a deep well of loneliness. He lives alone in his New York apartment, the clutter around him telling its own story. One morning, a knock on his door changes everything for him. On the other side stands Winona (Sarah Hay), a neighbor who wants to pay him $1,700 to borrow his car so she can drive up to rural Canada to permanently go off with aliens who have previously abducted her, taken her DNA, and released her back to Earth. You heard me.
Peter trusts no one, especially someone who presents herself as unhinged as Winona. The fact that he has a pit stop he wants to make in the same area, a mysterious trip to a lake which has something to do with a former friend, causes Peter to not only take the deal, but to ride along.
A road trip ensues, but definitely not your typical one. Zuleta infuses his story with fantastical elements, a commanding, pulsating sound design and score, and cinematography both intimate and epic, an impressive feat for such a low budget film. Although I had a sense of where this was all going with little indicators getting sprinkled throughout, it did not detract from my enjoyment.
The key to this film is the intense relationship between Peter and Winona, and the two actors deliver layered, specific, beautifully committed performances. Jeffers brings self-pity and self-hatred, yet his character is also witty, hilarious, highly intelligent, and sometimes sweetly horny. Hays reminded me of Tuesday Weld in Looking For Mr. Goodbar, one of the great fragile but strong screen performances. I loved how Winona makes sure people understand that her being a sex worker is just one small facet of her overall makeup. She’s also fun, scared, and haunted by her past. These two broken souls begin to see each other, creating a wonderful bond. Love it or hate it, this film not only centers two characters usually at the periphery of a main story, but it also shines a light on two very gifted actors.
Not everything works. Road movies by nature feel episodic, and an encounter with two people who give them a jump, while fun, felt tonally from a different movie. A heartbreaking interlude between Peter and a handsome man in a roadside bar ends in a way I didn’t quite buy, but it still remains powerful. When an offscreen officer knocks on their car window in the middle of the night, it led to moments which felt more ridiculous than scary. On the other hand, I loved the sequence in which a friend of Winona’s named Suzee (Kerry Flanagan) helps them find a back way into Canada. While ingesting mushrooms or some type of hallucinogenic edible, she hilariously strains to direct them properly while tripping her balls off into her own idea of outer space.
Still, small quibbles aside, this film ultimately feels like an emotional journey disguised as a thriller. I ached for Peter to find a small sliver of happiness in his life, and through Jeffers’ wonderful performance, he allows it to peak through all those complex feelings. Hays also has a similar arc, both characters navigating their way through past traumas. Conceived during the isolation of COVID, the film feels like a heartfelt plea to push and push and push to find a small sliver of joy. That final, lovely shot, however ambiguous it may seem, said so much about how we must choose happiness if we’re ever to get ourselves out of this shitstorm.
By Glenn Gaylord, Senior Film Critic
Unidentified Objects screened in person at the 40th Outfest Los Angeles LGBTQ+ Film Festival on Wednesday, July 20th and is available to stream online until 8am PT on Saturday July 23rd 2022.
The 40th anniversary Outfest Los Angeles LGBTQ+ Film Festival runs in person and online until Sunday, July 24th 2022. For the full lineup and to purchase tickets head to OutfestLA.org