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Unidentified Objects

Convinced that the extraterrestrials who abducted her when she was 15 are finally coming back to take her with them, Winona (Sarah Hay), a bubbly young woman, asks her neighbor Peter (Matthew Jeffers), a little person mourning the death of a close friend, to let her borrow his car. He reluctantly agrees, but only if he can come along for the escapade. That’s how “Unidentified Objects,” the endearing first feature from Colombian-born director Juan Felipe Zuleta, sets these two would-be pals on a mission across the northern border and into Canada to reach a specific site where Winona will meet her alien saviors. 

Road trip movies offer an inherently ideal format for a pair of characters who would otherwise not have much reason to interact to go on a literal journey, and come out on the other side transformed by the experience. Stuck in a vehicle together, often the co-leads in this type of story slowly let their guards down and find in each other a true friend. 

Despite how overdone these tropes have become, there are still worthwhile attempts at transforming or subverting them. Unfortunately, Zuleta sticks too closely to the default formula, playing the hits without giving them much of a refreshing remix. One by one, all of the usual story beats that come with driving long distances come to pass: car trouble, a heart-to-heart chat, an encounter with other travelers, the obligatory bar scene, and ultimately a confrontation where pent-up grievances get chaotically aired out. 

The redeeming qualities, which this debut definitely has, come from the prickly banter between the co-stars and some of the sci-fi-inspired dreamscapes interspersed throughout. The director finds another asset in Sebastian Zuleta’s score that lends “Unidentified Objects” an atmosphere ripe for discovery and curiosity. Electronic sounds immediately evoke an intergalactic voyage, alluding to Winona’s wish to ascend. 

Although society ostracizes them—Peter is also gay, and Winona makes a living through sex work—screenwriter Leland Frankel doesn’t render them simply likable or virtuous given their personal struggles. Instead, Frankel carves them with jagged edges, particularly Peter, that are only mildly sanded off as he warms up to her. However, for all the inner turmoil of these two people radiate, there’s a notable lack of fuller character development because we don’t get a sense of their world beyond this quest. 

Winona’s seemingly deteriorating mental health and Peter’s deep-seated self-esteem issues surface as they get closer to their rural destination. She hates that he deems her crazy, while he despises the infantilizing tone and language she instinctively uses with him. For Peter, asserting his agency as an adult in a body that the world refuses to see and respect is the battle that defines his brazen personality.  

Jeffers plays Peter as a pompous intellectual with a chip on his shoulder. The actor’s commitment to the role’s acid quips yields a handful of sidesplittingly deadpan one-liners. It’s all in his cuttingly unvexed delivery. In contrast, Hay’s enchanting Winona shows almost unwavering kindness toward him, even if they are perpetually aware she is distressed. At times both performers step into over-acting territory, matching the not-so-flattering artificiality of the space odyssey-type passages where we see them wearing metallic attires. 

Everything about “Unidentified Objects” works best when at its most subdued. Take, for example, a scene where Peter slow-dances with a burly but kind man at a bar. For a moment, in a daydream that doesn’t involve interstellar events, both the character and the actor can put down the sassy schtick and give in to a potently wistful sentiment. Peter surrenders his self-imposed apprehensions in the arms of that hyper-masculine love interest. 

There’s no denying that Zuleta and Frankel constantly embellish the overly familiar frame of their project with unique touches. But in the end, “Unidentified Objects” often resembles the exact emotional ebbs and flows of other movies, despite its singular protagonists. Thankfully, Zuleta conjures enough effervescence to make us invested in their search for a place in the universe, even if the path is well-trod. 

Now playing in theaters. 

Carlos Aguilar

Originally from Mexico City, Carlos Aguilar was chosen as one of 6 young film critics to partake in the first Roger Ebert Fellowship organized by RogerEbert.com, the Sundance Institute and Indiewire in 2014. 

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Film Credits

Unidentified Objects movie poster

Unidentified Objects (2023)

Rated NR

100 minutes

Cast

Sarah Hay as Winona Jordan

Matthew Jeffers as Peter Hobbes

Hamish Allan-Headley as Alien Cop / The Handsome Stranger

Roberta Colindrez as Lola

Tara Pacheco as Sadie

Roy Abramsohn as Cliff

Kerry Flanagan as Suzee

Elliot Frances Flynn as Abigail

John Ryan Benavides as Nico

Director

Writer (story)

Writer

Cinematographer

Editor

Composer

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