“The Vast of Night” is a brief but hypnotic journey through a single night in a small New Mexico town in the 1950s. The retro feel comes not just from the setting but the treatment of the story itself, which focuses on two teenagers over the course of one tense night, when a mysterious noise, and maybe more, comes to visit their town. This tight, taught story seems like a radio or TV episode from the years in which it takes place. Light on effects, heavy on old-fashioned suspense, this is a clever and satisfying science-fiction debut from director Andrew Patterson.
Fay (Sierra McCormick) is just a teenager, but she works her mother’s switchboard job at night, while Everett (Jake Horowitz) is a radio DJ and sought-after expert on electronics. These two A/V enthusiasts and close friends are pretty much the only two people working on the night of a big basketball game that has attracted the majority of their town’s small population to congregate at the high school gym.
An amusing, sprawling opening sequence follows Everett through the high school gym while everyone tries to figure out what is causing the electricity to flicker, and Fay admiringly accompanies him. She has a new tape recorder and he is teaching her how to use it, and they practice their interviewing skills on their walk to their jobs. Both kids are interested in technology and promising gadgets of the future; they talk about college and bigger and better things. The payoff of this long opening conversation is solid characterization in the relationship between our two heroes.
Fay is expertly connecting calls when a weird frequency comes through; soon, stranger things start to happen. Some calls disconnect abruptly and others are just fragmented reports of something in the sky. Of course, Fay turns to Everett for help, and these two brainy dreamers are on the case. In addition to the elements of suspense, “The Vast of Night” is full of the delights of nerdy enthusiasm and expertise from the brave and capable kids. There is a Nancy Drew-ish pleasure to be had from watching Fay scamper through the empty streets to get a clue from the library.
Everett, slightly Fay’s senior, perfectly portrays a confident nerd. At one point he confesses that he “makes girls mad a lot,” and he is a great character, an interesting mix of confidence and awkwardness. The lack of romance between the stars was refreshing. This short adventure left no time for that.
When the kids aren’t running from place to place, there are two tense and fascinating stories of exposition that are told, meaning that some of the film’s most important parts are simply a voice describing something. This device is so interesting for the pacing, and in these moments we are practically listening to a radio show. When Everett plays the mysterious sound over the radio to seek help identifying it, an elderly African American man and former G.I. (Bruce Davis) calls in to the station, and for several long minutes describes his experience hearing the strange sound. We see nothing on screen, but we are rapt.
Fay and Everett’s attempt to figure out what is happening takes them to the home of an elderly shut-in woman, and her account of the source of the sound is positively hair-raising. Through mostly dialogue, always recorded on a giant reel-to-reel, hauled around by two geeky teenagers, the filmmaker ratchets up the tension. The entire film takes place in the space of a high school basketball game, and it is a perfect little story, fitting exactly into its space and working brilliantly within its parameters.
At different times, “The Vast of Night” reminded me of David Lynch, Steven Spielberg, Orson Welles’ “The War of the Worlds,” “The Twilight Zone” or even “Stranger Things.” But, while it shared different moods with those pieces, what was entirely its own was the striking ingenuity of this film. It was simply so much fun to watch. It was fascinating and thrilling, scary and funny, a gloriously retro and dazzlingly clever journey into the unknown.
“The Vast of Night” is available to stream on Amazon Prime.
New This Week:
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“Yes, God, Yes”: A Catholic teenager, played by Natalia Dyer of “Stranger Things” fame, struggles with sexuality in the early 2000s. This film premiered (and snagged a prize) at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival. Video on Demand.
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