‘The Vast of Night’ is an impressive achievement, but not a satisfying one

“The Vast of Night” –  Fay (Sierra McCormick) and Everett (Jake Horowitz) are a couple of enterprising teens.  They attend Cayuga High School but hold grownup jobs in the evenings.  Fay is a devoted switchboard operator, and Everett is a radio personality at WOTW with a Highway Hits radio show from 7 pm to 11 pm.  If Fay’s work sounds bizarrely dated, that’s because director Andrew Patterson’s “The Vast of Night” is set in the 1950s, and the kids’ hometown of Cayuga, N.M. is a blip on the radar screen with just a population of 492.

The law of supply and demand between the labor force and available jobs in Small Town, U.S.A. might explain the inclusion of teens in highly visible (or their cases, audible) posts.  Well, Fay’s and Everett’s jobs place them in the center of this “Twilight Zone”-esque feature film.

While shifting and plugging switchboard jacks, as various calls pop in and out of Fay’s headset, she listens to Everett’s show, because that’s what friends do.  Although this ordinary evening takes a curious turn, as some bizarre noises – that resemble whales performing industrial music – interrupt Highway Hits.  The curious kids soon connect and begin an investigation to solve this audio oddity.

Patterson’s film delivers a surreal experience from the get-go.  A Rod Serling soundalike welcomes us to something called Paradox Theatre through a small rounded television that was last seen at the 1964 New York World’s Fair.  Through the looking glass, we find ourselves gliding into the town’s high school basketball gym.

Think of a Hickory game from director David Anspaugh’s “Hoosiers” (1986), but about an hour before tip-off with gentle Steadicam strolls and a soft, smoky haze over a lens that offers a slight emotional distance.  We are observers in this movie, not partakers, which feels consistent with nonsensical dreams, and Anderson’s camera seems to float, so this trancelike atmosphere is wholly complete.

Basketball is not this movie’s prime focus, but entering the Cayuga Statesmen’s wooden and steel den is not without an absolute purpose.  Instead, we hover behind and next to Fay and Everett, as they leave.  They have jobs to do, right?

If you step back, please note the list of facts:  small town, New Mexico, 1950s, and odd sounds.  Yea, they don’t quite add up to basketball, and science fiction seems infinitely more likely.  Luckily, our two adolescent (but only in age) leads carry a Mulder and Scully vibe, but without the stark differences between idealism and pragmatism.  They are a two-person team with a common goal, and writers James Montague and Craig W. Sanger appear to have distinct purposes for every move during Fay and Everett’s nighttime chase.

Yes, this smartly-constructed, beautifully-filmed 86-minute experience is a mesmerizing step into some bizarre lost moment in a parallel universe.  No question, “The Vast of Night” has a tight hold on a soaring, fearless presentation, but it lacks tension, angst and drama.  This movie – first and foremost – is for filmmakers and cinephiles.  It’s one to behold, cherish and assign to eager film students everywhere, but with little narrative anticipation, the picture feels like a nonevent.

It’s “Blood Simple” (1984) without violence or “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004) without distress and passion.

It doesn’t mean that “The Vast of Night” isn’t an impressive achievement.  It’s just not a satisfying one.

⭐⭐ 1/2   out of   ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Image and Trailer credits: Amazon Prime Video

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