The tension was high, the masks were up, and the people were ready to enter the first screening of the Telluride Film Festival. Riz Ahmed is being honored with a tribute at the festival this year, so it seemed fitting to have the first screening be his newest film, Encounter, directed by Michael Pearce. Ahmed plays Malik Khan, a Marine who returned home but is on a top-secret mission to save humanity from an alien species that infects humans through bug bites and takes over the host. In an attempt to keep his sons, Jay (Lucian-River Chauhan) and Bobby (Aditya Geddada) safe from harm, in the middle of the night, he sneaks into the house and rescues them from their infected mother (Janina Gavankar) and step-father (Misha Collins).
Set out on a road trip to the only safe base in Nevada, the boys and their father’s journey is anything but easy. As they come across suspected infected humans, they must keep each other safe and look after each other. Their travels are filled with moments of joy as the boys spend some much-needed time with their father, but something looms over them. As the story unfolds, we learn that Malik may have more in his past than his sons know, such as his stint in prison that assigned him his patrol officer (Octavia Spencer). When she learns of his kidnapping of his sons, a state-wide manhunt ensues as they try to rescue the boys, who they believe to be in great danger. As Malik inches closer to the Nevada base, the man-hunt closes in on him.
Riz Ahmed has never given a bad performance. He completely dedicates himself to each role and embodies that character wholly. Malik is a complex and dark character, rooted in love and an intense desire to protect his children. He struggles with the effects of war on a person’s psyche and shows both a delicate side with his children and an intensely violent side resulting from his kill or be killed life while at war. Lucian-River Chauhan as the oldest brother, Jay, gives a phenomenal performance. He tackles issues beyond that which a young boy should handle with an authenticity and honesty that is so well done. Aditya Geddada, in his first-ever role as Bobby, provides a lot of comic relief and is a joy to watch. Octavia Spencer, as always, is a delight, but I wish we had more of her character in the film to establish the relationship between her character and Malik.
Encounter takes a fresh and unique look at PTSD, veterans, and how the effects of war can impact the servicemen of this and other countries. While it sometimes meanders and gets a little lost along the way, it is a film that thrives on a stellar performance by Riz Ahmed and the compelling relationship he has with his sons. It is strongest in the moments where these characters are allowed to play and really live in their circumstances, good or bad. Encounter is worth the watch for fans of Riz Ahmed, but may not appeal to all audiences.