by Hope Madden
Two young Asian women are separated by 1400 miles but connected by their invisible daily struggle against countless racist, misogynistic slights. And also, this phone call, placed blindly by Emily (Midori Francis, The Good Boys, Oceans 8) to Sam (Jolene Purdy, Orange Is the New Black).
Emily stepped on her glasses in her hasty escape from ex, Charlie (Michael Patrick Lane). Her hands are zip-tied, she can’t see, she’s in the middle of the Michigan woods, but she has her cell phone. If she can get anyone on the line, maybe they can be her eyes and guide her to safety.
To a degree, this is a gimmick exploited in Randall Okita’s 2021 See for Me, but director Yoko Okumura makes it work somewhat organically when Emily reaches Sam, a misused Tallahassee convenience store cashier who’d recently misdialed looking for a pizza.
Sam doesn’t believe the call is real, then doesn’t think she could possibly be the best person to help, but eventually relents. What follows is often tense, frequently poignant, sometimes a bit forced, but ultimately charming and satisfying. Even in moments where the contrivance is pulled a little thin, Gator Galore employee Sam anchors the antics emotionally and logically. While you are eager for Emily to survive, it’s Sam you’re rooting for.
Mainly (and wisely), writers Salvatore Cardoni and Brian Rawlins’s script puts the point of view someplace audiences can understand – a gas station convenience store. This simplifies things because it’s a very common, almost comforting location for a horror story. And, although we may or may not have been in the woods of Michigan running frantically and blindly from a maniacal ex, we’ve all been to a gas station convenience store.
Likewise, Purdy’s performance feels real, regardless of the absurdity of her situation. Here is where the film struggles slightly, though. What goes on inside Gator Galore is a broad, garish, Gators n Guns adventure that crosses over to comedy, albeit incredibly tense and horrifically frustrating comedy. These scenes work, developing a hateful and sadly recognizable tension that launches the film’s anxiety toward its truly satisfying conclusion. It just sometimes feels like whiplash against the far more traditional wooded survival horror going on at the other end of the line.
Back in Tallahassee, Missi Pyle is, per usual, the ideal candidate to play entitled trash who truly believes that her slightest whim is of so much more value than any other possible situation that murder would be justifiable. I mean, is it even murder when you’re being so inconvenienced by a convenience store employee?!
Unseen is an angry film. Okumura’s is an angry voice, but it finds comfort and salvation in community. The film takes aim at casual racism, gaslighting and toxic white privilege but never lets anger overshadow her central relationship.