The term “alien” takes on multiple meanings in writer-director Moin Hussain’s intriguing and rather gloomy debut feature, Sky Peals, which follows a lonely rest-stop cook whose life is upended by the death of his estranged father. Although extraterrestrials are evoked at some point, this intimate indie is less of a sci-fi thriller than a minimalist character study, focusing on a multiracial protagonist who doesn’t seem to be at home anywhere.
Screening in Venice’s International Critics’ Week sidebar, the film marks a promising first feature for Hussain, who shows a steady command of tone in a story that’s basically set in one colorless, extremely alienating place. But it can also be too much of a one-note affair at times, lacking the dramatic energy to take it to wider audiences.
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What’s important to note about Sky Peals’ young hero, Adam (Faraz Ayub), is that his mother (Claire Rushbrook) is British while his father, who dies under weird circumstances toward the beginning of the film, is Pakistani. Adam is thus caught between two worlds, and he seems comfortable neither among the Brits he works with at a service station burger joint nor the members of his dad’s extended family.
Strange things happen to him from the start. He has recurring nightmares and daydreams, which flash into his mind like apparitions from another world. His father leaves him messages on his answering machine, then shows up at the rest stop — where he winds up dying before Adam can ever meet him. Why did he come by in the first place? What made him suddenly decide to reach out to the son he hadn’t seen for so long?
Hussain, who also penned the script, never answers these questions fully, but rather takes us on a journey through Adam’s deranged psyche and gradual self-awakening. When we first meet him, he’s truly a turtle stuck in his shell, unable to communicate with others outside of a few timid words. Ayub manages to hold our attention without doing much beyond shuffling around and looking lost, portraying a character who has a lot going on in his head, but who’s unable to express himself to those he meets.
This includes Tara (Natalie Givin), a single mom who works at the restaurant and takes a liking to Adam despite the fact that he barely acknowledges her. There’s a rather sweet scene between them where, at a party given by their new manager, Jeff (Steve Oram from Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers), Tara coerces him to dance, and for once Adam manages to lighten up and show another side to his otherwise withdrawn personality.
The reasons for this withdrawal are hinted at by Hussain as the story all-too-slowly progresses: Photos of long-lost relatives in Pakistan are found in the car Adam’s father left in the rest stop lot. And Adam’s uncle, Hamid (Simon Nagra), explains how his dad once said he thought he came from another planet. This sets off a subplot where Adam, and the viewer, start searching for clues of real aliens lurking somewhere around the highways of northern England.
In many ways, the E.T. solution would more easily explain why Adam seems so detached from the world. But Hussain’s film, despite its sci-fi title and a few hints of bizarre apparitions — mostly through lens flares and other visuals provided by DP Nick Cooke — is more grounded in the reality of working-class life, which is shown to be particularly alienating for someone like Adam with foreign origins.
The pacing in Sky Peals can, like its protagonist, be too laconic at times, and a little more drama or humor would have been welcome. But the film gradually manages to work its way under the skin — to cite the Jonathan Glazer movie which, in some ways, feels closest to what Hussain is going after here. Whether or not Adam is an actual alien like the Scarlett Johansson character is beside the point. Just like her (or it), he’s forever experiencing things from the outside, observing a world that seems strangely familiar yet is not completely his own, hoping to somehow understand who he is.
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