For the first 15 minutes of The Vast of Night, I was worried that I was in for a long night. The small budget indie debut of director Andrew Patterson has a slow start, focusing on a flirtatious conversation between high schooler Fay (Sierra McCormick) and her friend Everett (Jake Horowitz) in 1950s New Mexico. The camera shies away from showing them up close as it follows the pair across a series of mundane interactions with townspeople while they test out a new voice recorder. They loiter around a high school before the start of a basketball game before finally parting ways, each heading to their respective jobs – Everett as a radio DJ and Fay as a switchboard operator.
In those first 15 minutes, I thought I knew what I was getting. The conversations just felt a little too mundane, the shots a little too broad. I thought I was in for a film filled with cutesy nostalgia inducing style-over-substance – although to the film’s credit, I could smell the fresh grass on the lawns its characters traversed, and I also felt myself remembering the rare occasions I attended high school football games.
So you can imagine my mental whiplash when Fay settles into her spot at the switchboard. We finally get her first closeup, and it’s followed by a 10-minute single take in which she operates a chaotic switchboard with deft hands, connecting and disconnecting and carrying on multiple conversations like it’s no big deal. You think you know what kind of movie you’re watching? Not so fast. Watching Faye operate the switchboard is dizzying, and it firmly ensconces you in the era beyond high school pep rally nostalgia. We look back and view that world and its technology as simple, while its characters operate complex switchboards and lug around massive radio equipment to complete basic tasks.
Those calls Fay is connecting leads us to the film’s central mystery: a strange sound appears on both the radio and on the phone lines, and Fay and Everett want to know what it is. Everett puts out a call to his listeners to help him solve the mystery, and this is where the film evolves into something that feels more like a radio play. The first listener (Bruce Davis) calls in and details how and when and where he’s heard this sound before – and as you can probably guess, his story has a sci-fi bend to it. Fay and Everett chase leads to confirm the listener’s tale, which leads them to a second caller (Gail Cronauer) with an even more out-there connection to the sounds. The teenagers hit the pavement to learn the truth while looking up at the sky and wondering: Is something really out there?
The two radio callers’ tales are where The Vast of Night really lets its script by James Montague and Craig Sanger shine. These portions of the film feel a bit like a play adapted into a film – the kind where there are very few set pieces, and you’re relying on the words and performances of the actors to keep you going. That kind of “play adapted for film” feeling (although that’s not the case here) often doesn’t work for me. But these two conversations give the movie a chance to become something completely surprising. The Vast of Night disarms you with its nostalgic trappings of the period while using its science fiction mystery to unearth personal tales of those marginalized by the era.
That said, yes, The Vast of Night is a small budget film. Mostly it’s inventive enough that you don’t know it, though sometimes it shows. Like its use of very few set pieces, or the way the characters run around a lot in the dark. But it really wrings so much out of a small budget, it’s hard to complain.
The element that worked the least for me in the whole film was its show-within-a-movie approach. The film uses a framing device known as “Paradox Theater,” something akin to the Twilight Zone, to give the viewer the appearance of watching an old TV show instead of a movie. It was a device I almost forgot about until it was randomly recalled a few times later. I was interested in the radio play aspect and feel of the film, but trying to also tie a TV-show-of-the-time ribbon around the proceedings just felt like unnecessary or even distracting window dressing to me.
If you’re looking for a little escape in the era of social distancing, it’s hard to go wrong with a movie like The Vast of Night, which is available streaming on Amazon on May 29. It’s a unique mystery wrapped in a neat 90-minute run time, complete with compelling narrative and great performances. It’s the kind of movie that makes you want to wait for it to get dark, open up some windows, and let the soft summer breeze in while you delve into a mysterious ride of a film.