Unconformity (2022)

Writer/director Jonathan DiMaio’s feature debut Unconformity opens with a dizzying montage: colourful crystalline structures rotating under a young woman’s microscope and looking in their iridescent beauty like a stained-glass window; the same woman skilfully scaling a similarly colourful climbing wall; and the woman in goggles as she saws through a stone sample. Beyond their mere colour coding, all these scenes represent variations on a theme, showing Alex (Alex Olive) at one kind of rock face or another. In a straightforward sense, these images all figure Alex’s chosen path: for she a graduate student in geology at Boston University, devoted to seeking out the secret histories of stone. Yet there is also contrast here, as Alex’s own unstable position climbing the perilous academic ladder is juxtaposed to the solidity of the rocks that she is studying.

The precarity of Alex’s status is made clear in an early sequence, where, looking into a long-dead geologist’s notes, she makes the sort of discovery that requires a complex expedition and could cement her career, only for her fellow-geologist – and boyfriend – Gary (Ben Baur) to steal it from under her nose, with a sexist faculty board taking his word over hers. Caught between a rock and a hard place, Alex is left sespondent and in need of a break from her department, and so persuades her reluctant, exploitative supervisor Dr Petro Stein (Drew Gehling) – whose very name doubly puns on the rocks at the film’s centre – to let her go do some solo fieldwork in the Mojave Desert, where she also hopes to get in some rock climbing. Once encamped there, she makes another career-defining discovery: a series of Ediacaran fossils that evidence a lost period of early large fauna. 

Yet while Alex is busy unearthing ancient history and working hard to secure her own professional future, she grows more involved with Nico (Jack Mulhern), a similarly lost local teenager who hopes to continue the family business grazing cattle, even as his father Everett (Jeremy Holm) insists, “there’s no future for ranching out here, just the past.” As if acknowledging this anxiety about his prospects, Nico even has a nightmare in which a cowboy on horseback risks becoming engulfed by the flames of the burning celluloid that depicts him. After all, Nico’s dreams seem no less outdated and passé than the whole western genre.

Indeed, notions of extinction are never far away in this harsh, arid landscape, where water is scarce and life is a struggle. For now, faced with changing boundaries and repeated interventions from the well-intentioned but threatening Bureau of Land Management ranger Jason Lowrie (Eddie Martinez), it is Everett’s ranch that seems headed the way of the dinosaur. As Alex fossicks for the remains of past life, others too are interested in what is buried beneath the soil: the mining company that excavates all over and seems to offer the only vaguely reliable work opportunities in town, and even Nico and Everett, who regularly visit the grave where the bones of Nico’s recently deceased mother lie interred.

As Alex teaches Nico to climb, and urges him to persevere with what he loves however lost the cause may appear, their relationship – more mother-son than boyfriend-girlfriend – solidifies, and both learn from each other to evolve with and adapt to changing circumstances. So Unconformity, itself named for a sedimentary feature marking a gap in the geological record, frames the uncertainty and transience of small human dramas against a backdrop of all-engulfing panoramas and cosmic time scales, exposing the simultaneous momentariness and momentousness of our existence, and the persistence of life against crushing, catastrophic forces.

For even as arguably very little happens here, Unconformity encompasses the history of the planet, offering the widest of ecological and geological perspectives on our petty aspirations and disappointments in a dog-eat-dog world of sometimes pure survival, and sometimes more. Everyone here is following a timeless (and recurrent) biological imperative, and if nobody’s future is yet set in stone, eventually, inevitably it will be – but If we will all one day be mere sedimentary layers of petrified matter, there is at least nothing now to stop us from bucking insidious trends, refusing to conform, and rocking on. Placed under DiMaio’s microscope, this slice of life may be viewed as either inspirational or cautionary – but it is certainly a colourful kaleidoscope of human endeavour.

strap: Jonathan DiMaio’s feature debut exposes a desert-set human drama to a broader geological perspective

© Anton Bitel