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DIRECTED BY: Juan Felipe Zuleta
FEATURING: Matthew Jeffers, Sarah Hay
PLOT: Peter, an irritable gay dwarf, reluctantly agrees to go on a last minute road trip with sex worker Winona, who believes she has a date to be abducted by aliens in Canada.
COMMENTS: Ralph Waldo Emerson could have made his famous declaration “it’s not the destination, it’s the journey” as a motto for the road movie genre. The road movie formula structures its plot as a series of challenges meant to reveal its characters, force them closer together as they overcome obstacles, and eventually rip them apart (before they reconcile in the finale). Unidentified Objects fits firmly within the road movie genre, with a couple of twists: it focuses on one of its two travelers much more than the other, and it’s spiked with hallucinatory sci-fi interludes.
Not to slight Sarah Hay—who is excellent as a sex worker Winona, a woman who appears wacky in her alien obsession yet is far more down-to-earth than her companion—but Unidentified Objects belongs to Matthew Jeffers. His portrayal of Peter perfectly embodies the script’s magnificent creation of a misanthropic, deeply depressed homosexual dwarf who’s an expert on Anton Chekov. If Jeffers had hit a single false note, the movie might have quickly come to a screeching halt. Fortunately, Jeffers is always a joy, prickly and sarcastic but achingly vulnerable. Peter is a natural hermit—a sort of homegrown alien in, as he complains, “a world with little to no patience for bodies not of a highly specific make and model”—so Winona’s main function is to give him an excuse to travel out into the world, as well as to challenge his cynicism. She’s a platonic pixie dream girl.
Along with their road encounters with drug-addled survivalist, lesbian cosplayers, and horny teens, two or three dream sequences provide serious character development for Peter. I’ll leave it to the viewer to discover the details for themselves, but the first major set-piece is effectively horrific and supplies backstory and motivation for his journey, while the second emphasizes his loneliness in a way that a real-life scenario never could. These scenes (and others) are accompanied by disco-pink lighting that emphasizes the tale’s otherworldly queerness. Although Winona sets a dreamlike tone early on by asking, “ever wake up from a dream and it’s like you’re still dreaming?,” in practice the movie does the opposite: it’s always clear when a dream has ended, but not when one has begun.
Some may complain that the ending, while not overly ambiguous, shies away from the cosmic promise of the premise—but remember, it’s the journey that matters, not the destination. Winona abducts Peter from his lonely apartment, where he feels like he has every reason to stay locked away from humanity with his volume of Chekov. His courage in choosing to face a harsh world that was not built with him in mind is ultimately a more impressive achievement than being chosen to be whisked away to some celestial paradise.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: