Review by James Lindorf
At First Light is the second directorial effort for Jason Stone (The Calling) who also penned the script. Gravitas Ventures will release the film in theaters and On Demand September 28th. Théodore Pellerin (On Becoming a God in Central Florida) is Sean, a young man who was tasked with too much responsibility after his mom left he and his younger brother with their ailing grandmother. After a chance encounter with his former best friend and eternal crush, Alex, played by Stefanie Scott (Insidious: The Last Key), Sean is the only one she can turn to after her close encounter with mysterious orbs of light. The meeting leaves Alex with extraordinary powers that are as dangerous to anyone that spends time with her as they are to those she is protecting herself from. As they flee from their families, the police, and a covert government agency, Sean must decide whether staying with Alex and discovering the truth behind her powers is worth dying for. You can be there when Sean and Alex make first contact on September 28th.
When Stone begins his film, other than some fleeting glimpses of lights in the sky, he presents something that is more akin to The Florida Project than a sci-fi blockbuster. Sean is at least 10 years older than The Florida Project’s 6-year-old Moonee, but the camerawork and the characterization of a kid exposed to too much while severely lacking supervision to be like every other kid their age. It was a good set up to get you involved and caring about Sean, but this focus on character goes away as soon as he gets a call from Alex in the middle of the night. Sean is by far and away the main character. Alex is unable to express what is happening to her, so we experience it through Sean and his desire to protect her.
Pellerin got to shine in this film because Sean is a fully realized character with hopes, fears, and moments of joy, anger, and despair. There isn’t an element of the human experience that the role doesn’t ask from Pellerin and he delivers in every aspect. While the character of Alex may not be as complex, Scott was very convincing as a confused and sometimes terrified young woman struggling to understand what happened to her and if she’s even herself anymore. Just as important as strong individual performances are, the chemistry between the two leads is even more so. While I don’t think the chemistry between Pellerin and Scott was about to burn down the set, it was strong enough that you believe they are two scared kids who would cling to each other during a traumatic time.
Stone was brilliant in how he divided the film’s budget, dedicating enough to make the special effects look good, even if they were not photorealistic. Bringing on Pellerin and Scott, two good but mostly unknown actors to lead and a couple of faces you may recognize like Kate Burton (Scandal), Saïd Taghmaoui (Wonder Woman), and Percy Hynes White (Gifted) as supporting characters was another tremendous cost-saving move.
At First Light pays homage to things that have come before, like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, X-files, Stranger Things and Men in Black, without aping to heavily. I also loved the design of the aliens. It is unlike anything I can remember being done before. We never get exact answers on who, or what the aliens are or what their goals may be, but their look, the particles of light blended with crystalline geometric shapes really appealed to me.
It’s clear that Stone has the talent to direct much more significant films. I’m just not sure he has what it takes to write them, but a more substantial budget could expand his imagination. That’s not to say he has to shoot for the next Marvel movie or next sci-fi blockbuster, his script shines in the early moments of the film when it is just Sean’s story. I would love to see where that story went in 90 minutes without all of the sci-fi elements.
At First Light is an indie teen drama with a splash of sci-fi that is well above average when compared to other low-budget genre films. Unfortunately, like a team race where everyone must cross the finish line to win, the acting, direction, cinematography, sound design are all there waiting while the script ran out of gas three-quarters of the way through. There is too much quality work here for anyone to dislike this film actively, but there may not be enough here for anyone to love it, other than major sci-fi fans. In the end, it is a decent film worth your 90 minutes, but it may work better broken down into demo reels for all involved to move on to bigger and brighter things.