'First Light': Film Review | SXSW 2018

Courtesy of SXSW
Shoots for the stars but never quite gets off the ground.

Jason Stone’s sci-fi drama starring Stefanie Scott and Theodore Pellerin premiered in the festival’s Narrative Spotlight section.

While 2016 award-winner Arrival may have gotten more people thinking about the implications of human-extraterrestrial contact, it’s probably safe to say that the topic isn’t high on the list of the usual teenage concerns. So when two young people are forced to confront an alien arrival in First Light, it’s not surprising if they’re ill-equipped to deal with the experience.

Positing first contact with time- and space-traveling entities as the ultimate coming-of-age moment, writer-director Jason Stone reaches for grand analogies that manage to overstate the profundity of typical adolescent experience while minimizing the significance of a civilizational shift. Lacking the flash of big-budget blockbusters or the originality of a uniquely imagined world, First Light is left trying to make the best of overly familiar sci-fi themes.

Not that it’s a drawback to start the story off in the very ordinary setting of small-town California, where high schooler Sean (Theodore Pellerin) remains on the outs with his close childhood friend and eternal crush, Alex (Stefanie Scott), now that she’s dating loudmouth jock Tom (James Wotherspoon). Nevertheless, Sean’s the first one she calls after a close encounter with an alien life-form consisting of three penetratingly bright lights leaves her practically catatonic.

She can barely remember her own name or where she lives, forcing Sean to dig for answers to questions she can’t decipher. Things snap into sharp focus, however, after Alex hijacks a cop car and the APB issued on the pair identifies him as her kidnapper, pushing them to flee, “like Bonnie and Clyde,” as he says. The stress of dodging the police seems to revive Alex somewhat, but also triggers unexpected paranormal powers that only frighten both of them further.

After Alex’s initial, ambiguously staged alien contact, Stone deliberately holds back on the sci-fi themes and special effects before developments begin to suggest that her emerging telekinetic abilities may be the result of her otherworldly experience, leaving the movie playing like many another indie dramas in the meantime.

Things get somewhat back on track when rogue intel agent Cal (Said Taghmaoui) takes them in, revealing via a long bout of exposition that the “phenomenon” has been trying to make contact with Earthlings for some time, but previous subjects have died from elevated radiation levels, which also emanate from their bodies. In fact, Alex has so thoroughly irradiated Sean that he’s getting violently ill, so she decides to bolt, both to protect him and to discover more about the mysterious powers overwhelming her, but Sean isn’t ready to give up on her quite so easily.

By the time that Stone brings Alex and Sean back into direct contact with the extraterrestrial force, he’s dialed the X-Files-style conspiracy paranoia up so much that expectations run high for a revealing resolution. These ETs aren’t quite as communicative as Arrival’s heptapods, however, so their parting shot may leave audiences wondering if all of the characters’ racing around has been altogether worthwhile.

Marking a departure from his first feature, crime thriller The Calling, Stone’s script meets the genre requirement of imagining some pretty cool tech involving the swarms of lights attracted to Alex’s seemingly irresistible presence. The physiological features that make her unique and capable of surviving a degree of alien contact that’s rapidly killed off other humans remain unclear, however.

The motivations of the secretive security agency that’s tracking her in hulking black SUVs are equally vague but no less threatening. So that leaves the principal plot concerning the star-crossed lovers to carry First Light, but without a more robust sci-fi context, that’s a fairly earthbound premise to rely upon.

Production companies: Oddfellows, Bunk 11 Pictures
Cast: Stefanie Scott, Theodore Pellerin, Said Taghmaoui, James Wotherspoon
Director-writer: Jason Stone
Producers: Chris Ferguson, Michael Baker
Executive producers: Brian Kavanaugh-Jones, Jeff Chao, Justin Begnaud, Fernando Loureiro, Roberto Vasconcellos, Patrick Roy, Christina Kubacki, Ben Silverman, Lisa Wolofsky
Director of photography: David Robert Jones
Production designer: Lisa Soper
Editor: Greg Ng
Music: Edo Vanbreemen
Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Narrative Spotlight)

90 minutes