Whether young adult or full grown, rom-coms tend to follow a similar track. The characters are on different trajectories, there’s a meet-cute, they find themselves drawn to each other, and then there’s conflict. Perhaps it was a conflict the audience knew about the whole time, maybe it’s one a character kept secret, or maybe it’s one that takes them both by surprise. In any of those cases, depending on the undercurrent theme of said rom-com, the resolution is going to be pretty clear from the outset. That’s where an interesting concept and strong performances help to separate the average from the out of this world. Director Jake Van Wagoner’s (Christmas Time) sophomore outing rides the line between both in Aliens Abducted My Parents and Now I Feel Kinda Left Out, premiering at Sundance Film Festival 2023, a family tale whose romantic elements dovetail neatly into the larger tale of love and personal acceptance through interstellar wonder.
Budding journalist Itsy Levan (Emma Tremblay) is not happy that her parents have moved her and her brother Evan (Kenneth Cummins) away from the city, her friends, and her future to renovate a house all the way in nowhere town Pebble Falls. On her first day, she’s partnered with class pariah Calvin Kipler (Jacob Buster), a space enthusiast/engineer/astronomer, and the two seem to hit it off. Noticing this, Itsy is approached by a fellow classmate with the idea that Calvin’s story of eccentricity might just earn an academic scholarship for them both to a journalism program at New York University. Itsy agrees to befriend Calvin and learn exactly why he is as he is; however the pursuit of freedom for herself sets herself on a path to discover that there’s something bigger than herself out there and it’s right in front of her.
We all feel a little lost sometimes. Maybe because we’re not where we think we ought to be or because where we are doesn’t feel like a good fit. The script from Austin Everett (Secondhand Hearts) utilizes this feeling, this angst, as the gateway to explore the narrative’s larger concepts of being in the right place wherever you are. The obvious aspects of Aliens Abducted is introduced in the opening where we see what Calvin sees on that fateful night so many years ago when aliens appeared upon the arrival of the 10-year comet. He’s spent his entire life since that moment learning about space, mathematics, engineering, all so that one day he can be ready to join his parents traveling the stars. He believes — balls to bones — that his parents are out there, trying to get word to him, and it’s up to him to figure out the way to join them. Portrayed by Buster, Calvin is weird, sure, but kind, sweet, and charming. He’s aware of himself enough to know that his classmates and fellow Pebble Falls residents think of him as some local oddity, but he doesn’t care because he *knows* the truth. He saw it himself. Everett walks a fine line in his script, creating situations that are expected within the rom-com subgenre, yet finds ways to tweak things so that the execution feels authentic within the world of the story. Calvin’s story is the propulsion that kicks of Aliens Abducted, it’s the aspect that gives it its kind heart, an opportunity to look at the world, nay, the galaxy, with a sense of curiosity that is so often worn out of us well before we clear double digits. But it can’t be the only aspect of the film to keep things moving. The question as to whether Calvin lost his parents to aliens is a big one and there needs to be more. Enter, Itsy, someone who is in a new place, uprooted and expected to thrive somewhere new.
She’s the anti-Calvin in this situation: taken away and desperate to get back, willing to do whatever it takes to accomplish her goal. Now Everett and Van Wagoner don’t spend much time on diving into her background shy of a few lines of dialogue and a scene in which Itsy looks at photos. We don’t know from which city she and her family moved (maybe New York City based on a reaction to something from her parents) and we don’t learn much about her life where she was. Instead, Itsy’s journey is focused on what’s next. To do this, the audience is lead to believe that Itsy is so desperate that she’s willing to potentially embarrass a stranger on a grand scale with the article she goes undercover to write. This is the part that’s expected of the genre. Like Buster, Tremblay offers a performance that elevates what’s on the page, giving Itsy depth of character the circumstance does not. We recognize from the moment the two characters meet that Itsy isn’t as judgmental as her new classmates, demonstrated by a rather adorable meet-cute in a math class. Tremblay’s Itsy may be frustrated with her new home, but that doesn’t come out when meeting new people. It’s unclear if this is intentional on the part of the actor or direction, but the character states an interest in journalism which requires (or, at the very least should) an open-mindedness to the stories around us. That she doesn’t try to get out of working with the “weird kid” and, instead, ends up ping-ponging with him, going with the flow so as to do well on the assignment, implies that underneath her frustration and desire to get out from where she is, Itsy hasn’t lost the part of herself that’s open to others. Smartly, in addition to being an adorable meet-cute, this situation also sets up something significant to the script that pays off repeatedly throughout the film. More importantly, it also establishes the chemistry between the actors and their respective characters.
Though there’s a bit that that’s shortened in the already brief 87-minute feature, the risks Aliens Abducted takes is well worth the effort and energy. Nothing about the film is trying to break the mold. Rather, it uses the mold as a jumping off point to do its own thing. Sure, this means that there aren’t a lot of surprises, but the ones we do get carry more impact as a result. Granted, this reviewer is more prone to having a gooey center so rom-coms tend to land softer with me, but the execution of the secrets-revealed portion as they relate to both, or more accurately the mysteries within both character arcs, induced quite a few tears (mine and on-screen). The one’s on-screen felt similarly authentic, partly because of the performances which grounded the characters and also because the script doesn’t go out of its way to be wacky, it just makes the normal seem strange. Credit also to Van Wagoner for finding ways to make the other-worldly elements tie neatly into the vibe of the film as a whole, so that the flashbacks and, ultimately, the answer Calvin seeks possess a certain silliness to ensure that nothing about Aliens Abducted leans too gritty or intense. This is a family film, after all.
All said and done, Aliens Abducted My Parents and Now I Feel Kinda Left Out may not exit the exosphere but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be applauded for trying. We know the outcome for the characters from the moment they met, yet the actors are so damned charming that we eagerly go along for the ride. Not to mention that the way things go, the script takes the time to ensure that everyone, the audience included, is well invested in seeing how things play out. Not only that, but it inspires a feeling of appreciation for where one is, that being where you are isn’t without opportunities, that you are not lost if you know where you’ve been and have an idea of where you want to go. There’s comfort there, especially as, like Calvin, when one looks up, it’s not hard to maintain hope. In that vein, Aliens Abducted makes one feel as though they’ve blasted through the atmosphere and are headed out on a grand adventure.
Screening during Sundance Film Festival 2023.
For more information, head to the official Aliens Abducted My Parents and Now I Feel Kinda Left Out Sundance Film Festival webpage.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.