Writers: Joe Barton and Michael Pearce
Director: Michael Pearce
Michael Pearce’s Beast was a London Film Festival highlight back in 2018, a fascinating, complex film about a young woman finding liberation with a mysterious outsider. Pearce is back with his latest movie Encounter starring fellow Festival favourite Riz Ahmed who premiered his own acclaimed film Mogul Mowgli last year. A sensitively told tale of alien invasion, microscopic parasites and a father desperate to save his children, this is one encounter you won’t forget.
Packed for a mission to save the earth from microbial invaders, Malik wakes his children in the middle of the night and takes them on a road trip across the desert States of America to protect them from the raiders. Only, Malik hasn’t seen his children for two years and by essentially abducting them from their mother’s house, sets his parole officer Hattie, the police and the FBI on their tale. With Jay and Bobby increasingly affected by their father’s fear, where will this road take them?
Written by Joe Barton and Michael Pearce, Encounter is a wonderful surprise; its synopsis suggests a paranoid alien movie, perhaps even a spoof, but instead it is a domestic road movie about a man losing his grip on reality, held together only by the love he has for his children and the hero’s desire to guarantee their safety. Encounter becomes instead a, sometimes moving, depiction of alienation and love as Malik’s mind and the reality of their situation contend.
A narrative shift occurs very subtly within the film, moving from the premise that everything Malik says is correct. We see close-up shots of insects crawling in forests, pouring through cracks in the walls and trapped in lights and fans, from which the audience is primed to believe that this will be a standard alien movie about bugs infecting and controling us.
But something more affecting happens instead, a slow dawning reality that all is not as it should be, that Malik is not only a troubled man but really shouldn’t be near his children as his frustrations shockingly turn on the innocent and frightened little boys in the back of the car. Yet again, Barton and Pearce move the needle using the protocols of the FBI to establish a level of danger that we’re not sure is fully justified, leaving our ultimate perception of Malik nicely balanced between his own view of the world and that of others acting without nuance.
One of the interesting secondary themes in the film is the disproportionate reactions that have a note or two on American gun control and the trigger-happy nature of law enforcement. And while Malik is by no means an innocent man, the reaction of citizens with a shocking armoury and a battalion of police officers all of whom aim their weapons at a father and his two little children feels rather pointed.
Riz Ahmed is as astonishing as ever as Malik, changing our perception of him as the story unfolds and, with utmost sincerity, showing the strain of this man’s mind. That he believes he is acting for the best is never in doubt, but Ahmed demonstrates impulse control issues in a former marine with plenty of pent-up anger which becomes both worrying and moving as Malik starts to recognise the fear in his children’s faces as they begin to see through him.
Lucian-River Chauhan pretty much steals the film as Jay, giving an incredibly mature performance as a boy who so desperately wants to believe in his father but slowly discovers another adult who will just let him down. And if Jay’s final act to protect his family moistens your eye, at least back in the darkened cinema no one will see. Aditya Geddada is adorable as Bobby, the youngest son who runs away in moments of crisis and is too little to really understand the shades of adult fallibility happening around him.
While Beast took place in a small community, Pearce increases the scale here with considerable ease, using the beauty of the rocky American desert as a pseudo-alien backdrop which looks stunning. But there is such intimacy in a story that never forgets it’s focus on a family crisis that makes Encounter a very worthy second feature.
Encounter is screening at the London Film Festival.