Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Headed your way: Queer movie, Unidentified Objects

This indie comedy-drama has been hot at select film festivals including Sitges, Outfest, Newfest and Frameline and now it’s headed your way: New York gets a weeklong theatrical run starting June 2 with nationwide on-demand June 9.

Filmed in Maine and New York, Unidentified Objects is an original feature film with a metaphorical queerness at the heart of its road trip narrative. By that I mean the characters and their situation are analagous of queer life and identity: Doing what you can with what you have and seeking allies and kindred spirits in your quest for authentic selfhood.

Directed by Juan Felipe Zuleta and written by Leland Frankel this very charming and easy-to-watch film portrays Peter, a gay, unemployed New Yorker with dwarfism, who is persuaded by a cash offer to take an impromptu road trip by his possibly unhinged, alien-obsessed neighbor Winona, an occasional sex worker.

Peter agrees to drive Winona to Canada to see her sister, or is it her mother…? But really, it’s to check out what she believes to be the “intersection” — an upcoming alien landing that will prove her belief in another life-supporting Universe. On their journey, which is sometimes hallucinatory, Peter and Winona encounter a variety of folks — including lesbian cosplayers, a ‘gay’ lumberjack — but the further they go and the more they come to terms with each other and their ‘alien’ selves. As the countdown to their alien abduction approaches, are they looking for aliens or are they searching for their own sense of self-acceptance and belonging?

This is a charming, deeply moving, well-written and beautifully photographed film that comes at perfect time, when our community is again under assault and anyone who doesn’t fit the stereotype of mainstream assimilation is forced to question and defend their role in the broader social narrative. Even if you’re self-identified you can still find yourself unidentified by others.

Matthew August Jeffers, who plays Peter, was born with a form of dwarfism so rare that it was initially only referred to as “Matthew’s Disease.” Thirty years old and already a critically-acclaimed veteran of Off-Broadway and hit TV shows like Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and New Amsterdam, Unidentified Objects marks his first role in a feature film, making history as a leading man with dwarfism, and following in the footsteps of his role model, Peter Dinklage.

“Aside from Unidentified Objects, every part I have played on stage and screen was written for a person of average height,” says Jeffers. “I’ve always had to go into the audition room and change a director’s mind about how they see a role. This industry can be really, really cold and cruel. Especially for underrepresented groups! You have to change minds. And in my experience, the best way to do that is with the work itself.  That is what I strive to do in each audition, and with each role I earn. I hope to continue to do that.”

“Films permit us to transcend not only our language, but every element of our lives. Through film, we taste and touch and breathe another world we have never experienced. We become the outsider for a moment or two. Even a mediocre film helps its audiences perceive themselves a little bit more clearly,” says director Juan Felipe Zuleta.

“Certainly films helped this fresh-off-the-boat Colombian teenager (with a thick accent) get a grasp on who he was and what he wanted; films like Y tu mamá también, Children of Men, The Devil’s Backbone, and more modern classics from Spanish-speaking directors. The stories that I tell in films like Unidentified Objects are driven by a deep sense of empathy. Even before my creative partner Leland Frankel and I had finalized the concept for what would become our first film, we were asking ourselves: ‘What characters have we never seen as the lead in a movie? Whose lives need to be lived on the silver screen?’

“Enter Peter (Matthew August Jeffers) and Winona (Golden Globe-nominee Sarah Hay). I knew that we wanted to tell the story of a little person after realizing there was this huge, incredible pool of performers with dwarfism who rarely got the chance to play nuanced lead roles on-screen. At a human level and at a creative level, that kind of representation is important. 

“And so Unidentified Objects is about a curmudgeonly gay man with achondroplasia and a free-spirted sex worker who form a one-of-a-kind bond in a world that wants to grind them out like a cigarette butt. Both protagonists are … trying to cope with intersectional oppression. … The world is cruel and will not change for them. But maybe they can change themselves to find explosive joy and freedom on their own terms. Our film is a platonic love story about finding connection; one that reflects my own experiences adapting to a new country.”

“Describing Unidentified Objects can be a challenge thanks to its genre-bending approach. We decided to treat every flash of sci-fi and surrealism as absolutely real—without commentary—because all cinema is illusion. … Queer romance. Disability. Isolation. The specific concepts we explore create a universal connection that everybody can relate to. All of us have felt alone and unloved. All of us have experienced crushing loneliness. And all of us need to believe that we somehow matter in this universe.  If Unidentified Objects can show even one restless soul how much they matter, then all of our work was absolutely worth it.”

Merryn Johns

Merryn Johns is the Editor-in-Chief of Queer Forty. She is an award-winning journalist, as well as a broadcaster and public speaker. Originally from Sydney, Australia where she began her career in journalism in the 1990s, she is based in New York City where she became the editor-in-chief of Curve Magazine and wrote for a variety of publications including Vanity Fair, Vogue, Slate, and more. Follow on Twitter at @Merryn1

Merryn Johns has 138 posts and counting. See all posts by Merryn Johns

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