Even with a few days left to the festival, it’s going to be tough to beat The Vast of Night for the top slot. No, it’s not the best movie I’ve seen at the fest, but it is my favorite, hands down. It has everything a genre-hound could hope for, as well as some retro touches that ultimately work to bring the entertainment value into the present day. More on that in a second.
The Vast of Night frames itself as a prolonged episode of a Twilight Zone-esque television show called Paradox Theatre (I think that’s the title — my memory fails me). A black and white vacuum tube television set is broadcasting the tale to an empty, 1950s living room while we watch. A slow, presidential zoom brings us closer and closer until the cathode rays take up the entire screen, at which point the image shifts into color and we are whisked along for the ride. Despite this move into more modern visual sensibilities, the conceit of the framing device never fades. This is due in part to the setting (1950s New Mexico), as well as to the film’s cheeky tone, to which it commits with commendable aplomb.
In the small town of Cayuga, the locals have all gathered at the high school for the big basketball game. There have been some power issues with the lighting and the scoreboard (last time it happened was because a squirrel chewed a wire). Here to fix things is local tech wizard and radio DJ, Everett (Jake Horowitz). He’s a fast-talking, chain-smoking blow hard who will do anything in the name of “good radio.” He’s idolized by another tech enthusiast, Fay (Sierra McCormick) who, much like Everett, will not be attending the big game. While Everett will be spending the night at the WOTW radio station (get it?), Fay is stuck working the town switchboard. It should be an easy night, as few people aren’t at the game, and even fewer will be using their phones. But when Everett’s broadcast is interrupted by a mysterious signal, one which leads to an influx of panicked phone calls reaching Fay’s switchboard, the two savvy youngsters team up to figure out just what is going on.
The bulk of the story is told through a combination of lightning fast dialogue and prolonged monologues. Viewers will need to pay attention to every word, lest they be steamrolled by its delivery. This is not a problem, however, as first time director Andrew Patterson employs a handful of bold techniques to keep the viewer engaged. A long tracking shot which gives us a necessary geography of the entirety of Cayuga is a standout, but a mid-movie segment when, amidst a long, spooky radio monologue, the film fades to black for longer than conventional wisdom would deem proper, proves to be the boldest choice of all. It’s jarring at first, but the trick is a success, effectively putting the viewer in the shoes of a 1950s news audience. Back in the day, there was no picture to accompany a broadcast, and The Vast of Night takes the audience on a detour into this reality with confidence. As I mentioned at the outset, this retro touch taps into the podcast listening abilities of the modern brain, scratching the exact same itch. The more things change, it seems, the more they stay the same.
The film is chock full of long takes as well, each serving to highlight the strong performances across the board. A nine-plus minute take of Fay working the switchboard is a process lover’s dream, that showcases the talents of an exciting up and coming actress, while also cleverly developing both plot and character in tandem. The rule of “show, don’t tell” wins the day, even in a film feuled by its dialogue.
Visually, the film comes across a little dark. I suspect that this may be due to the projection at this particular screening, since it appears that the film was shot with darkness in mind (it takes place over the course of a single evening), and in the brighter moments it really pops. Further assessment on this front will have to wait until I see it again WHICH I SOOOOOO WILL. Even with flawed projection, the mood is palpable and engaging. Cayuga is a cozy place to be, until it’s not, often imbued with the marvelous feeling of a time when we viewed science as a sort of magic that will save us all (a hilariously prescient discussion of “TV phones” earns more than a few solid laughs). The score by Erick Alexander and Jared Bulmer moves between spooky and wonderful with a grace that matches the film’s similar tonal shifts, capturing the aforementioned wonder inherent to looking skyward for answers, while also delivering chills down the viewer’s spine as needed.
I could gush about this movie incessantly, and I’m sure there will be plenty of time for that in the future, but the fact remains that The Vast of Night is a truly compelling piece of indie film that uses its unending imagination to tell an exciting, thoroughly entertaining tale. Films like this one are why I go to film festivals. The joy of discovering something that uses my favorite medium to its fullest potential, even in absence of a heavy budget, is unmatched. I’ve been chasing it since PFF started, and it has arrived in the form of The Vast of Night.
Part of the 2019 Philadelphia Film Festival. Scheduled for release on Amazon Prime.