Fantasia Fest 2023 Review: Love is Its Own Form of Alienation in Zach Clark’s “The Becomers”

“Did you burn a baby in a trash can?” Gene (Frank V. Ross), the genial clerk of a Motel 6 asks a guest named Francesca (Isabel Alamin) not long after she’s checked in in “The Becomers,” with not even a hint of an accusatory tone in his voice. He’s seen enough from all the others who have checked into the rest stop between Chicago and seemingly the rest of the world to reserve judgment, but after being approached by the cops, he has to ask the young woman who hides behind a pair of sunglasses where she’s been. If there’s been an essential truth to the films of Zach Clark, it’s the fact that things get freaky in the suburbs when a culture of conformity pushes any odd behavior off main, which may be the best way to explain the pleasingly unclassifiable sci-fi comedy from the filmmaker behind “White Reindeer,” where not even attending a swingers sex party could bring holiday cheer to its lead (Anna Margaret Hollyman) in mourning, and “Little Sister,” which saw a nun (Addison Timlin) rediscover her heavy metal roots.

Just as the latter was set in the election year of 2008 with the U.S. prepared to take a new direction as its protagonist was making a choice about their future, Clark considers a society coming off of COVID without ever dipping into didactic terms. There’s never a direct reference to the pandemic, other than a few sparingly used masks, but instead the distinct feeling of isolation that was such a part of it looms large when a species of aliens that requires a human host for their adventures on earth move from body to body. There are two central characters, but only fleetingly attached to any corporeal form, a pair of lovers that have lost track of one another between planets and find their way back to each other somewhere outside Peoria, with their travels leading them into earthlings’ homes and experiences, which they must negotiate with what limited knowledge they have of their surroundings. (Like how are they supposed to know that disposing of newborns in trash fires might be frowned upon?)

“The Becomers” flirts with familiar fish-out-of-water theatrics as the aliens attempt to pass as humans, picking up vocabulary from cable news and placing contacts over their naturally purple and turquoise eyes, but there’s more sly humor and poignance to be found in the fact that there may be less suspicion aroused by tortured social interactions between humans and aliens in more anxious times, where both a desperation for connection and a more pervasive acceptance of not knowing what someone else is going through makes it far more forgiveable to overlook any warning signs. Initially abstract voiceover, performed by no less than Sparks’ frontman Russell Mael, starts to take shape around the reasons the aliens are here, sounding as if they have left one inhospitable situation for what increasingly looks like another in a stratified political reality that the extraterrestrials may be blissfully unaware of, but humans increasingly may see as the doom of civilization, unable to rally around a common cause.

For Clark, the absurdity of this particular cultural moment can make it seem like time is finally catching up to the writer/director, who returns to his roots of early films such as “Modern Love is Automatic” and “Vacation!” that reveled in camp and while he has flipped the equation a bit as his career has progressed, with vulnerability often emerging from people allowing themselves to show their eccentricities or quirks rather than using them to hide, “The Becomers” has the best of both worlds. Taking full advantage of the lovely conceit that an individual’s spirit decoupled from the skin they were born into is still capable of making a connection with another, what’s underneath truly counts.

“The Becomers” will screen again at Fantasia Fest on July 27th at 2 pm at Salle J.A. De Seve.

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