This modern-day “The Grapes of Wrath” follows a mother and daughter, who — like Okies before them — move to California to seek greener economic pastures but instead fall into a relentless downward spiral of poverty and homelessness. Shot with small Sony PC10 Mini DV camcorder on a shoestring budget, “First, Last and Deposit” applies naturalistic, verite techniques to a powerful social drama about the “other” America. Novelty of technical innovation plus serious subject matter merit attention on the fest circuit, cable channels and, possibly, in specialty theatrical release.
Opening shot follows 13-year-old Tessa (Jessica White) walking from Santa Barbara’s posh port homes to her nondescript low-income apartment. Tessa and her thirtysomething mother Christine (Sara Wilcox), moved from Arizona to California when mom’s boyfriend Roy (Jason Hallows) scored a job. But he quickly lost it and walked out on the mother and daughter, leaving bills they can’t pay on Christine’s $ 1,300 per month supermarket cashier salary.
Meanwhile, Tessa tries fitting in with more affluent classmates, lying about trips to Paris and identifying Christine as her nanny.
Four months behind in their rent, the duo is evicted, their belongings strewn on the lawn. Shortly, they are living out of their car at the beach, paying $ 5 a night to park there. Skateboarders go for a joy ride in the car, which holds everything Christine and Tessa own; when the vehicle is found, it is impounded, and Christine can’t afford to pay parking tickets and fees to retrieve it. Tessa runs away, is rebuffed by a snobby schoolmate, and returns to her mom.
Desperate and worn down, Christine has sex with sleazy landlord Ronald (Don Margolin) in exchange for an apartment. Afterward, he renegs, and frantic Christine steals his car, only to be pulled over by police, cuffed, and locked up, in front of mortified Tessa.
Although “First” has no Hollywood happy ending, Ronald does not press charges , and, against all odds, the strong mother-daughter bond endures. “As long as we have each other, we have a home,” Tessa writes to her granny in Arizona.
Acknowledging their debt to Italian neorealist and French New Wave cinema, activist/producer Duffy Hecht (son of the late producer Harold Hecht) and director/scripter Peter Hyoguchi (who grew up poor in Santa Barbara and claims to have once lived for eight months with his single mom in a Honda) use a largely nonpro cast here to good effect, and pic looks amazingly good given its meager resources.