At the outset, Unconformity feels like a film that would pander to a niche audience. A tale about a geologist whose first love is ‘rocks’ and the second ‘rock-climbing’ – feels like a narrative that may intrigue Hank Schrader from Breaking Bad (I know it’s not rocks but minerals, but you get the drift!) and very few others. However, Jonathan DiMaio’s film presents a story that operates beyond the scope of its protagonist’s obsession. It assuredly becomes a film about how uncertain we are of our choices and how carefully our life paths merge and diverge from the preconceived notions we have in our heads.
When we first meet Alex ( Alex Oliver) – a research scholar in Boston, she is on the verge of a major breakthrough. Like any normal person, her first choice is to reach out to the most trusted person – her boyfriend and colleague Gary (Ben Baur), who doesn’t straight-out dismiss her but asks her to hold back about her findings.
Alex is missing the last chapter of her dissertation, and this breakthrough will mostly lead her in the right direction toward publishing her research. However, as life would have it, Gary presents her idea before she can, betraying her by snatching her funding. Angry and disappointed, the headstrong and intelligent Alex decides to go to the Nevada High desert to pursue her research further.
Alex is also incredibly fond of rock climbing, so besides borrowing research equipment from Dr. Edwina Beatty (Rachel Pate), she doesn’t pay heed to her thesis advisor Petro’s (Drew Gehling) strong opposition and hits the road. The first few days pass by, but soon the isolation of being alone in the desert sets in once she cannot move her research forward. Thereby, a chance encounter with an equally isolated rancher Nick (Jack Mulhern), a young cowboy who is struggling to manage his cattle ranch with his father, Everett (Jeremy Holm), sets things in motion again. The two of them bond with each other as Alex teaches him to rock-climb while they discuss how life has managed to bring them to this crossroad.
But since crossroads lead to more complex conflicts, the two of them find the drifting pull of circumstances leading the way, leading Unconformity to stay true to its title but feeling disjointed in progression. The two plot threads are equally compelling in their own way. Still, at this point, the film feels like it is unable to bring them together as a whole. The result is a dull second half and a basic resolution that feels less earned despite its unconventional ways.
Additionally, the other characters who play essential parts in the overall story – Nick’s father, Jason, and Petro – don’t really manage to lift up their parts on the canvas. Leaving the landscape feel only half-filled with beauty.
That said, there is much to adore in the film. Both Alex Oliver and Jack Mulhern play their roles with an understated gaze. Oliver, in particular, is able to make her ambitious protagonist feel like an authentic woman who is damaged by the enigma of emotionally unavailable men. Her acting feels like a combination of Brit Marling’s confidence and Dakota Johnson’s innocence, making the final decision in the story not feel anti-climactic, despite feeling like that on paper.
Overall, Unconformity is a wistful character-drama about the uncertainty of finding one’s path. One that won’t really live with you for a long time but is well worth the ride.