There is an entire world that exists outside ourselves.
This world is within our grasp, yet so often we remain so completely unaware of anything outside our own experiences that we fail to reach for it.
Alienated, the latest film from writer/director Brian Ackley (Uptown), is a film that is aware of this world and yet, as is so often the human experience, it reaches everywhere searching for meaning except for that place where meaning can truly be found.
The story itself is seemingly simple. Nate (George Katt, In the Gray, In Montauk) sees a UFO, an experience that his skeptical wife Paige (Jen Burry, Land of Smiles) immediately dismisses.
Of course, there is more. There is more that happens. There is more that is said. There is more that is seen. There is more, much more, that is left unspoken and unseen.
There is a world that exists outside the world that Nate and Paige have created for themselves, a world seemingly based upon their own self-interests and petty differences and idiosyncracies. This world is quietly, almost painfully and insightfully, revealed by Griffin (Taylor Negron, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Vamps), a blind neighbor whose brief encounters with Nate are intimately jarring in their authenticity.
In Alienated, Nate and Paige must confront their their fatal relationship issues before their world that they've created based upon masks and quirks and and differences becomes all they really know.
It's not easy. It's never easy. Relationships come and go. We fight. We make up. We fight again.
Sometimes, those petty differences become the things that drive a wedge between us that makes the whole idea of making up seem nearly impossible.
Sometimes, we lose sight of really matters even when it's right in front of us.
It's kind of weird how life works that way.
There's never a moment in Alienated when Nate and Paige feel anything less than real, sort of like those friends we all have whose relationship is fraught with tension yet somehow we still know that it's meant to work. Nate and Paige fight, sometimes about things that you and I would likely deem meaningless, but isn't that how all relationships really work? Centering a film around a conflicted relationship can be a risky thing, because sometimes the filmmaker tries so hard to sell the conflict that we never buy into the actual relationship.
That doesn't happen here.
What happens here feels like those quiet little moments in relationships that often go unseen outside of the walls of the house that's not quite become a home. They are the moments that we share with the ones we love, because they're the ones that see the things we intentionally don't show anyone else. I remember a friend telling me once that she learned to stop saying "Fuck you" to her husband, because every time she would he'd walk up behind her and want to fuck her.
Yeah, in a way, that's exactly what it feels like watching Nate and Paige, a couple that fights so much that you wonder how they ever got together and how they can ever possibly stay together.
Yet, there's more. There's always more.
Of course, there's also more going on in this sci-fi/drama than it really seems. Bringing it all to life in ways that are compelling and thought-provoking, Ackley has crafted a film that resonates both emotionally and intellectually in a way that few sci-fi films dare even attempt. It's a film that balances this world and the worlds yet to be explored.
All of this is brought to life with simplicity and honesty by Ackley's small yet stellar ensemble cast. George Katt convincingly and compassionately portrays Nate as a man both consumed by theories about the world around him and yet driven by a love that he has difficulty expressing. It's a difficult performance selling a man who can be quite difficult, yet Katt does so with an intelligence and sincerity that consistently draws you in.
As Paige, Jen Burry is the film's emotional core. Seemingly the more emotionally grounded one in her marriage, Burry's ability to take Paige on an emotionally riveting journey while remaining true to everything that unfolds is nothing short of masterful. As Alienated winds down, Burry's performance becomes one of aching vulnerabilities and increased transparency. There are times, especially in the film's final moments, when the entire world is shut out as you watch Paige come alive through Burry's eyes.
In only a few absolutely essential scenes, Taylor Negron practically steals the show as a man who is both remarkably vulnerable yet wise old sage. Negron, a long under-appreciated actor possibly best known as the pizza guy in Fast Times at Ridgemont High and who passed away this past January from cancer, delivers his final performance with an aching honesty and intelligence that slowly reveals pretty much everything you really need to know.
Because of Alienated's sci-fi element, there's simply no question that the film's success must be equally attributed to the work of Ackley's stellar crew including Donald Murray for his intimate, moody and atmospheric lensing, Barbara J. Weber for an original score that feels like it is flowing through your veins, and Cabral Zimele-Keita for special effects that weave themselves naturally into the cinematic landscape.
If I have a quibble with the film, and it's certainly a minor one, it would be in the film's last couple of shots. Though grand in scope, they are less convincing and abruptly pulled me away from the journey with Nate and Paige and into a world larger than anything else had previously unfolded. I understood its purpose, but I found my heart and mind still lingering on the journey with which I had just shared a rather extraordinary 80 minutes.
Minor quibble aside, Alienated is certainly Brian Ackley's best film to date and destined to be one of 2015's true indie gems. While the team at New York-based One Way or Another has yet to put out a stinker from its growing slate of indie productions including Uptown, The 10 Commandments of Chloe, Cookies and Cream and others. Alienated is one of their best.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic