It’s the first high school basketball game of the season and all of Cayuga, N.M., population 492, is cheering on the Statesmen at the gym. Except for the town’s two brightest kids, Everett (Jake Horowitz) and Fay (Sierra McCormick), who are strolling through the empty darkness to their respective jobs as a radio DJ and switchboard operator, the two ways this Eisenhower-era small town keeps connected to the outside world. (Sixteen-year-old whiz kid Fay predicts electric roads and vacuum tube travel are totally going to happen by 1990; cellphones, however, she deems impossible.)
Tonight, however, Everett and Fay are going to become the conduits to creatures from even farther away – aliens hovering above the desert valley. But for this long, opening walk-and-talk in Andrew Patterson’s startlingly confident micro-budget indie “The Vast of Night,” which won the audience award at this year’s Slamdance Film Festival and was scooped up by Amazon the night before its Toronto premiere, the first-time director is content to let his leads light up the shadows with their conversation about science and technology.
For a while, he doesn’t even film their faces, just the back-view as Everett chain-smokes and Fay races to keep up with him, ponytail swinging, and clutching her new tape recorder. The effect is, well, alienating. Who are these teens? And without seeing their lips, we’re missing a quarter of their fast-talking chatter. (Even in their reality, Fay mishears the ham radio call, “Breaker, Breaker!” as “Bacon, Bacon!”) Yet, Patterson trusts that chemistry will compensate for a gentle thriller that chooses to impress with ingenuity and charm instead of special effects.
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“The Vast of Night” is all about execution. Its B-movie plot is so familiar that writers James Montague and Craig W. Sanger unabashedly frame the story as an episode of a TV show called “Paradox Theater,” an on-the-nose “Twilight Zone” imitation that’s the closest the film gets to nostalgia. Otherwise, “The Vast of Night’s” young cast and crew view the 1950s without sentimentality. There’s no period jokes except for Everett’s guess that the strange clicking thrum disrupting his radio show must be the Soviets, and his promise to give a piece of Elvis’ carpet to the first caller who can identify it.
Instead, the film (which Patterson funded by shooting game-time promos for his hometown NBA team, the OKC Thunder) has a let’s-put-on-a show energy. (Even Jared Bulmer and Erick Alexander’s score starts off as rustic handclaps with an occasional guitar strum before expanding into bold cello strokes.) The audience can sense the cast and crew’s verve to not just complete the picture, but pull it off with style. Once Miguel I. Littin-Menz’s camera rests on the incredibly talented McCormick (“Some Kind of Hate”) at her switchboard, finally letting the audience soak in her horn-rimmed glasses and intelligent eyes, she launches into a 10-minute single-take scene where she takes calls, plugs in wires, gets connected and disconnected, and begins to suspect that something isn’t right in sleepy Cayuga.
From there, “The Vast of Night” takes flight. At the midpoint, Patterson wows with a tracking shot that seems to race a half-mile down a quiet street, take a left-hook through a parking lot, sprint through an ongoing basketball game, and zip up the crowded bleachers before plunging out of a window. It’s effective razzle-dazzle that will probably get the young Oklahoman hired to make something 20 times “The Vast of Night’s” budget. Yet, the ambition behind it is just as impressive — as is the crew’s creativity at spinning financial limitations into magic.
However, audiences who’ve lived in small towns, themselves — or towns that felt small, no matter the size – will appreciate the nuances in “The Vast of Night’s” script that give it emotion and weight. When Everett boasts that he’s getting out of Cayuga for a city, Patterson watches the way Fay’s smile wavers. Even though she’s as clever as he is, perhaps even moreso, the girl can’t imagine getting to have a better life than working on a bigger switchboard, a job that we know soon won’t exist. And there’s a pattern to the callers who ring up the radio station to tell Everett everything they know. They’re black, or they’re female, and no one’s ever bothered to listen to them before. Which gives “The Vast of Night” a self-referential resonance: Pay attention to unexpected voices.