First Winter review: Tribeca Film Festival 2012

Sex, drugs, and yoga … in a cabin in the woods, in winter, with hippies. Or as Benjamin Dickinson’s affecting and stylish movie should be called: Apocalypse, Wow! This is a moody indie/arthouse that opts for ambiguity over answers but is none the worse for that.

Prepare to be unsettled during the movie’s opening sections, as Dickinson’s camera doesn’t sit still. It swoops and swirls around the members of a commune as they go through their daily cooking routines, yoga sessions and evening relaxations (three people in a bed, that’s for warmth, right?). It’s a relentless and dizzying experience – but is one that makes sense in relation to the end goal for the movie and its characters in their search for tranquility.

No doubt some audiences will find First Winter provocative but the often-unflinching look at the behaviour of this small bunch of friends and acolytes doesn’t feel deliberately controversial. In many respects the sex and drug scenes merely mask the monotony of life in a big, creaky house that is miles from anywhere else.

Don’t be too guided in by the idea that this is an apocalypse movie because that suggests a more conventional dramatic production. The apocalypse in question is actually only briefly glimpsed and occasionally referred to. The central point is that the event that robs the commune dwellers of their heat and electricity is a device that forces them into evaluating their behaviour, and ultimately their choices on how they might survive their ‘first winter’ in isolation.

Using a mixture of actors (mainly the female leads) and non-actors (most of the men), evocative cinematography, and minimal dialogue, Dickinson performs a subtle trick of evolving that shaky-cam start into a poised and elegant finale. This is most evident in a major sequence towards the end of the movie. A beautifully choreographed and filmed steadicam shot sweeps around the house as the remaining people go about their tasks in a spirit of harmony that’s far removed from the almost reckless to-ing and fro-ing of First Winter’s opening.

Dickinson and his team – who shot for 22 days and worked from a 20-page story outline, rather than a script – must have been soaking up the Thoreau and Emerson, too, as First Winter has a meditative aspect that is most definitely informed by the search for calm and enlightenment. As first features go this is a superb calling card, and as a piece of filmic art, it’s also a thing of beauty. Just don’t go expecting things to blow up – unless, of course, you’re talking emotionally!

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