Precocious, ferocious and self-assured, “First Winter” dwells on the darker side of a hippie commune while marking a radiant debut by writer-helmer Benjamin Dickinson, who imbues the film with a sort of dreamy dread. Like many a tyro auteur, Dickinson has an easier time getting into his story than he does getting out, but the film is less noteworthy for its narrative than for its visual textures, strategies and palpable tensions. While a bit too liberated for the mainstream, “First Winter” could flourish in specialty venues.
Dickinson and talented d.p. Adam Newport-Berra take what might be described as an extreme-docu approach to introducing the residents of a house in rural upstate New York. There, the charismatic Paul (Paul Manza), wearing Jesus hair and a mustache the size of a sea anemone, teaches yoga and a whole-grain existence; a shot of one of the womenfolk chopping up a block of tofu may elicit a laugh, but only because it’s so predictable. The p.o.v. is tight, overly intimate, even claustrophobic, and a certain rancor coexists with a free-love ethos: It isn’t long before we hear Matt (Matthew Chastain) chastising Paul for bedding the nubile hippie chicks, and Paul rebuking Matt for his heroin addiction.
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The visual style implies that something more sinister than organic cooking and menages a trois are afoot in the home of these transplanted Brooklynites, something perhaps Manson-esque or redolent of “Martha Marcy May Marlene.” But the real, unspecified peril exists outside: An enormous plume of smoke can be seen in the mountains behind the house; a blackout of enormous proportions has cut off the heat; the transistor radio delivers little but static. No one knows what’s up, but mere survival becomes an issue, even if it never totally overcomes the interpersonal snarkery and sexual jealousies within the commune. These become more acute after Marie (Lindsay Burdge), an apparent returnee to paradise, rekindles Paul’s interest, even while he’s juggling the feelings of his regular bedmates, Jen (Jennifer Kim) and Sam (Samantha Jacober).
Putting an ironic spin on the supposed purity of a primal existence, Dickinson introduces slow starvation and almost Old Testament-style retribution. The resulting, highly ritualized way in which the commune deals with mortality provides one of the movie’s very basic lessons: It’s harder to reinvent yourself than it may seem.
Dickinson never ridicules his characters, but he doesn’t idealize them, either. Their efforts at hunting deer are rather hapless (the actual out-of-season killing of two deer during the shoot has brought the production some unwelcome press), but they do manage to bag some meat; indeed, one of the more intriguing aspects of “First Winter” is the way the film seems to become more energized by the characters’ ingestion of protein: The pace picks up, the camerawork becomes more fluid. Unfortunately, there’s ultimately nowhere for the story to go, beyond a final shot that underscores Dickinson’s audacity.
Tech credits are impressive, including some fine editing by Dickinson, Jen Lame and Andrew Alan.