‘Unidentified Objects’ Review: A Surrealist Character Space Journey (Fantastic Fest 2022)

“Do you ever wake up from a dream and it’s like you’re still dreaming?” That question suffused Colombian filmmaker Juan Felipe Zuleta’s debut feature, Unidentified Objects. It haunts the viewer into a false sense of security, questioning their own experiences and purpose on this earth.

Unidentified Objects Film Stills
All stills courtesy of Unidentified Objects Film, LLC
Matthew August Jeffers (Peter Hobbes)

Unidentified Objects stars Peter Hobbes (Matthew August Jeffers) and Sarah Hay (Winona Jordan) as two strangers who discover something about themselves across a road trip to Canada. Very early on, Sarah knocks sporadically on Peter’s door, asking him for a bizarre request: to give her a ride to Canada because she needs to visit her sister. Peter agrees to help her since he also has a secretive reason why he has to go too. Eventually, it’s discovered that Sarah has an ulterior motive for going so far north. She’s going to a specific location at a particular time. What’s the purpose? Sarah’s going to be abducted by aliens from Andromeda, again according to her. What follows is a series of surrealist events and dream-like sequences where Sarah and Peter will be tested physically but mainly emotionally.

Zuleta crafted a beautiful minimalist flick covered in stunning cinematography, stellar performances, and an endearing narrative of trying to belong in this depressing world. The story is simple enough and confined to typical road trip movie tropes, such as encountering kooky characters and off-kilter locations. There are also the narrative trappings of road pictures that we repeatedly see – being pulled off by cops, stopping at hotels, and the car battery dying, just to name a few. Even with these elements, Unidentified Objects works phenomenally well because of the grounded and realistic performances from our dual leads, which add such a beautiful layer of charm, wit, melancholy, and empathy to the film.

Unidentified Objects Film Stills
All stills courtesy of Unidentified Objects Film, LLC
Matthew August Jeffers (Peter Hobbes)

Matthew August Jeffers plays a 30-something gay, intellectual little person, and he’s truly a revelation. His performance and profound, complex dimensionality add so much to his character that it genuinely elevates this film into something special. His tragic story of a lonely, confined, bitter man who suffered a significant loss is touched upon in such a heartbreaking way that it’ll be impossible not to empathize with his plight. There’s one specific sequence where a police officer pulls Peter out of the car and asks him if he’s been drinking. In the film’s own surrealist way, it is not actually a police officer, but instead, an alien asking him to remove his clothes and interrogating him about the death of his friend. This paves the way for a beautifully staged one-take as Peter undresses and breaks down, trying to come to terms with the fact that he let his friend down by ignoring their cries for help over the phone. Guilt drenches Matthew August Jeffers’ performance in thick-black remorse – highlighting how magnificent he is as an actor and performer. I cannot wait to see more of him, as he has incredible range and acting chops.

Unidentified Objects Film Stills
All stills courtesy of Unidentified Objects Film, LLC
Sarah Hay (Winona Jordan)

Sarah Hay plays a seemingly off-kilter free-spirited woman, but there’s such a deep-rooted layer of sadness that really elevates her from the stereotype she might initially be portraying. Her smile and kindness to the world always hint at sorrow and dismay. Sarah wrestles with her unidentified demons; some are left to interpretation by the audience, and others are slightly more obvious. She has incredible chemistry with Matthew August, and they both play off each other incredibly well. It really makes you wish they made it to their final destination. Their budding relationship is tragic but ultimately uplifting and hopeful.

The film touches on contemporary themes such as sex work, discrimination, and mental health. It uses its characters as avatars for these topics and handles the themes deftly and effectively, making you identify and understand their circumstances and background. As a result of the film ponders the question, why do people view these traits and lifestyles as something negative? And the film proposes to give some introspection into our own biases and maybe consider the other side and be a little more empathetic to our fellow humans.

The surrealist elements are very fitting, only being relegated to some specific sequences peppered throughout the film. It adds a layer of misdirect towards the audience while also acting as a coating of ambiguity over the various narrative threads. The pink hues utilized for the or alien encounters add cohesiveness to the themes and concepts the film constantly conveys throughout its plot. It constantly makes you question the reliability of the story itself – if what’s happening in the narrative is as it’s presented, as a simple road trip movie or instead if it’s all a fever dream of a recounted series of events by someone who aliens have abducted.

The soundscape and an original synth score, crafted expertly by Sebastián Zuleta, add a moody atmosphere to the whole movie, accentuating certain scenes and character moments even more. The cinematography is beautiful as well. All these elements curate the path for a striking and lovely piece. Unidentified Objects is an ode to the misfits in the world who feel they don’t fit in. It delivers a message to everyone who watches that no matter what you may think, you’re never truly alone in this world or even the universe.

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