It’s hard to take seriously a subculture in which you are ranked in the hierarchy of cool by your facial hair (unless you’re a wizard in Middle Earth). So I looked forward to First Winter, because the potential for both drama and comedy in First Winter is so obvious: a group of hipsters who believe themselves to be really connected to the earth spiritually and reject modern life (except, of course, their iPhones) discover how inadequately prepared they are to handle surviving after modern society mysteriously collapses and their cabin is cut off from heat, water, and electricity. It could have also been the modern equivalent of a slasher film, with the actual killer being the problems that arise from the lack of civilization. But writer/director Benjamin Dickinson shies away from these takes in favor of drama, but it’s difficult to feel compassion for people who are just so unlikable that you frankly don’t mind seeing them freeze to death.
Paul (real-life yoga instructor Paul Manza) is the Gandalf-bearded leader of a new-age commune in a cabin in the woods away from civilization. The commune seems to operate with Paul teaching yoga classes by day, then the group listens to music, does drugs, and later Paul sleeps with all the girls. It seems like a pretty good arrangement (well, at least for Paul) until some sort of outside event leaves the cabin without any utilities, and being that it is winter that’s a more significant problem than usual. The rare radio signal they get makes it sound like something bad has happened, but exactly what isn’t made clear so we never find out how dire these people’s circumstances are. A search party never returns, and though the group notices rising smoke rising far in the horizon it doesn’t seem to affect them much, but we sure get a half dozen shots of pensive staring at the horizon. Why they automatically assumed the outside world has collapsed is beyond me — and why they don’t seem more upset by that notion is a bit disturbing.
As it turns out, for all of Paul’s preaching about healthy lifestyles and communal living, the guy is totally clueless about how to survive once society collapses. His stores of preserved fruit in the basement are spoiled (well, we only know that one jar was — the group stupidly dumps ALL of them as a precaution), he wastes valuable candles to set a romantic atmosphere in his attempt to recapture one of his prior conquests, and he spends more time brooding than acting like a leader for people who are looking at him as a leader. He eventually seems to come around to the role, which pretty much shows that this “communal living” idea only works when life is pretty easy. Then someone has to step up and, you know, be a leader.
Of course, the rest of the commune is not much better at survival skills. At first everyone sits around waiting for the power to go back on, then there’s a fear of “running out of wood” (though they’re in a cabin in the middle of the WOODS), and when the men finally decide to go hunting for food they are unable to shoot at a target beyond twelve feet away. Sure, it must have been fun with all their yoga, drugs, and sex, these people are incapable of doing anything practical. I wondered if instead of “escaping” society in their commune, society instead kicked them out for being so completely useless at contributing anything worthwhile to it. I mean, yoga is cool and all, but if all you can contribute to the world is yoga and your ability to make organic salads and hummus you’re going to rank pretty low on the list of people you’d want to be stuck on a desert island with. Anyone with the bare minimum Boy Scout or Girl Scout skills would’ve coped better.
It was amusing to see these people who preach eating organic food reduced to eating condiments, one of the most processed food products, but Lord of the Flies this movie isn’t. Instead of seeing man reduced to his base instincts we have lots of people being rather mopey about the inconvenience of not having electricity or heat and not being Paul’s sexual partner of choice. It’s hard to root for people who are so annoying and clueless. At least a comedy like Wanderlust can take similar characters but make them interesting. Furthermore, the fact that none of the characters are played by particularly gifted actors doesn’t help. For most this is their first movie, and it especially wasn’t a wise choice to cast Manza in the lead when this is his first film. He brings barely any emotional depth to the role, and the fact that his entire face is covered by beard hair means it’s impossible to see his facial expressions, which would’ve helped convey some kind of emotion.
This is Dickinson’s debut feature, and my first advice for him and cinematography Adam Newport-Berra is to invest in a tripod and pull back the camera. Much of the movie is shot like an on-the-fly documentary, but since this isn’t a documentary the feel is totally off. I’m assuming the close, tight shots were an attempt to give the audience an in-your-face, uncomfortable feeling, but I kept worrying that the camera would get tangled in hipster beard hair. That sort of camerawork was only innovative when Blair Witch hit the scene. In all seriousness, it’s hard enough to follow “shaky cam” when it is done during an action sequence in an action movie — now imagine that for an entire movie. The promotional material for the film tries to highlight its “microbudget” and “authentic” production, so if the goal of the production was to make this movie look like amateurs shot it then they succeed on that level alone. Nevertheless, I’m not sure how a poorly shot movie makes the movie more “authentic.” The fact that the cast and crew didn’t even know that it is illegal to kill deer without a permit, with an unlicensed gun, and outside of hunting season (yes, they actually shot a real deer, skin it, and cook it on camera) shows that the people making this film had no clue what they were doing. As clueless as the characters are with surviving, the filmmakers were just as clueless about how to make a movie.
I’ve seen bad movies before for Movie Buzzers, but I hadn’t seen any that I thought were flat-out un-entertaining until I saw this one. I have a number of friends who are into all kinds of movies, but I can’t think of any who would actually enjoy First Winter. The only think I could think of that would be worse? Second Winter.
Rating: I would rather be in the utility-less cabin than sit through a movie this grating again (1/10).
Tribeca Film Festival Screening Times
Thursday, April 26 9:00PM Clearview Cinemas Chelsea 7
Saturday, April 28 2:30PM AMC Loews Village 7 – 3