At First Light opens with a mysterious glowing craft passing over a small-town dollar store. It’s this juxtaposition of the supernatural and the mundane that director Jason Stone explores over the course of his film. At First Light mixes Steven Spielberg-like wonder with the modest rural sensibilities of Shotgun Stories (2007) and the naturalistic expressionism of George Washington (2000). These elements add up to a stylish film that screams out to be noticed but plays it too safe once it has our attention.
Sean (Théodore Pellerin) and his younger brother Oscar (Percy Hynes White) are a couple of young miscreants. We meet them at a sad looking variety store, hawking jewelry and stealing whatever isn’t nailed down. They spend their days skateboarding while playing hooky from school before coming home to look after their near-comatose grandmother. Their humble family doesn’t have much, but the two boys seem content. That is until a girl comes into the picture.
Sean has been crushing on his old friend Alex (Stefanie Scott) for a long time, and he ruins his chance to reconnect with her at a late-night party. Instead, Alex and her date slip off for some skinny dipping, where they encounter an extra-terrestrial presence. A mysterious set of lights zaps Alex, and not long after she ends up walking along the side of the road, half-naked, with no knowledge of what happened. It’s Sean who comes to her rescue, but before he takes her home, she starts manifesting powerful psychic abilities which draw the attention of a secret government agency. Instead of heading home, the two teens go on the run to figure out what’s happening to Alex before their pursuers close in.
First Light, with its modest budget, can’t compete with large-scale sci-fi films, but that’s part of its charm. DP David Robert Jones captures the action with a look that merges Terrence Mallick-style naturalism with J.J. Abrams’ slick sci-fi aesthetic. That means lots of shots of tranquil landscapes and grass blowing in the wind and also bright lights setting off many lens flares.
But it’s more than the colourful lights and flashy CGI that stands out; rarely has a dumpy middle-of-nowhere town felt so authentic. Everywhere Sean goes, from the corner store to his grandmother’s home feels real and lived in. Each shot comes across like an authentic slice of life and not a production designers’ notion of what small-town USA looks like. The way that the brothers find pockets of joy while buried beneath the poverty line is reminiscent of Moonee, the little rascal at the heart of Sean Baker’s The Florida Project (2017). Even as I cooled on the performances, the alluring cinematography was a constant treat.
Sean and Alex take turns carrying the picture, but neither character makes a compelling hero. Alex spends a large chunk of the film in an alien-induced fugue, leaving her numb. Sean is believable as a troublemaker and wayward teen, but he is a tough character to sit with. His persistent deer in the headlights expression gets old fast, and there isn’t enough to the character to make him worth rooting for. It’s Sean’s younger brother Oscar who shows the film’s only flashes of charisma, but he doesn’t get enough screen time to liven up the movie.
At First Light offers a lean and familiar take on the first encounter genre. An otherworldly presence appears, leaves its mark on a human who is pursued by authorities until they reconnect with the visitors. There isn’t much more to At First Light’s story; no memorable set pieces or mind-melting existential conversations to set itself apart from better films. The focus is on two teens with zero chemistry avoiding their pursuers long enough for the movie to reach its vague conclusion. This is very much a journey and not the destination movie, so if you’re not feeling the two lead characters, there isn’t anything else here for you to enjoy.
No one expects every genre film to bring something new to the table, but At First Light still suffers from an inability to separate itself from similar movies. Stone combines elements of Close Encounters (1977), Midnight Special (2016), and Stranger Things (2016) and merges them into something visually arresting, but narratively banal and thematically indistinct. At First Light isn’t a lousy sci-fi picture; its worst offence is taking up time better spent watching movies that leave lasting impressions.