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Simon Read [Film Festival 07.14.19] fantasy mystery

Director Andrew Patterson's startling debut feature is an homage to old Twilight Zone episodes, set over the course of one night in a sleepy New Mexico town in the 1950s. Jake Horrowitz plays Everett, a confident and articulate high schooler who works part time as a local radio DJ, and Sierra McCormick plays his neurotic friend and classmate Fay, who works as a telephone operator. When Fay hears a strange noise broadcast on the radio and over the phone wires, she contacts Everett and the two teens investigate.

Films like The Vast of Night are the reason I do this gig. Every so often you discover a film that genuinely takes you somewhere new, a film in which all the components click perfectly into place and about which you wouldn't change a frame. From its opening scene, an unbroken tracking shot gliding around a busy high school gym and out into the town beyond, following Everett and Fay as they maintain a rapid-fire conversation on the nature of recording sound, the film feels electric, seamlessly introducing us to the characters and the world they inhabit, and firmly establishing the feel and tone of the story.

The film contains several such shots, audacious and precise, unbroken takes - one in particular covering what feels like the length of the entire town. But the camera is not afraid to stop every so often, as when characters hold intense monologues in close-up, telling their story and their take on this strange broadcast. The Vast of Night is technically very impressive.

The script, by James Montague and Craig W. Sanger, is filled with snappy period dialogue delivered at high speed by the actors - the film's pace is often so brisk that it's almost overwhelming and we have to tune into its rhythm. Horrowitz and McCormick do a terrific job with some extremely demanding, intricately played scenes, all while maintaining a likeable, humorous chemistry throughout.

What lifts the film beyond simply working as a technical exercise is its development of themes and the way it plays with expectations. During the Q&A following the screening Patterson spoke of his desire to take familiar tropes and cliches of the genre (aliens, strange signals, amateur sleuthing), flip them around and give them new life, and this works extremely well. The film manages to sustain our interest throughout long scenes by keeping us constantly on our toes about where things are headed. Characters talk about the future, space travel and technology - their excitement at living in the atomic age, and thanks to smart dialogue and energetic performances our response is to get excited ourselves. There is a terrific depth of response to these characters precisely because of the way the story is told.

Storytelling and communication are critical themes within the film. Fay's new tape recorder, a marvel at the time, allows her to interview subjects who may have information about the signal; the telephone exchange and radio station are key locations in the narrative; old tape recordings found in the local library provide clues. Two key scenes involve interviews with characters who deliver eerie monologues about their experiences with extraterrestrials, moments in which the film deliberately slows down and the atmosphere becomes so thick that we almost feel as though we're sitting in the room with the characters. It's heady stuff.

The score to the film adds dimension also, all strings and booming horns with additional sourced music from Holst's The Planets and Strauss' Zarathustra. It feels urgent and exciting, and really gives the film an epic feel. Period details, cars, costumes and technology, are all seamlessly integrated into the film.

Films like The Vast of Night don't come along very often, but here it feels like we've got an example of the real deal - an exciting, fun, beautifully crafted and constructed sci-fi mystery. It is joyous film-making. Search it out, you'll be glad you did.

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