'First Light' Borrows The 'Chronicle' Template For A Satisfying Sci-Fi Romance [SXSW]

As this generation's filmmakers attempt to create their own superhero origin stories without going through Marvel or DC, Jason Stone's First Light succeeds by blending Chronicle with YA romance. Hard sci-fi elements that limit themselves to rural country suburbs before breaking out like a conspiracy containment gone wrong. As illuminations flicker and cosmic mysteries unravel, a relationship between boy and girl remains thematically intrinsic – powers exist, but effects needn't overshadow story. Not to suggest a boring watch by any means – it's just nice to see the unknown be mixed with tender crafts.

Théodore Pellerin plays small-town teen Sean Terrell, who still isn't over ex-girlfriend Alex Lainey (Stefanie Scott). Maybe she feels the same way, but Sean's self-reliance and housebound responsibilities (caring for a non-responsive grandmother/rambunctious brother) cause him to retreat behind personal walls. It's same story he spills to Alex at a remote-location kegger, where things then take a turn for the odd. Alex goes for a late night swim with now-boyfriend Tom (James Wotherspoon), she glimpses approaching lights and inexplicably comes-to while wandering with no direction. Sean's phone rings and it's Alex, who doesn't remember a thing. And now she can use force powers. And agencies eventually give chase. Ah, young romance.First Light begins with bright red spots in the sky – asserting stranger things to come – but doesn't rush into a Power Rangers (reboot) discovery. Sean's family life is integrally established so we understand his willingness to seek adventure, especially alongside Alex. Grammy is stuck in her recliner, needing weekly medication refills, while Sean's little brother continually causes issues in school (mom and dad both out of the picture). Sean is forced into a fatherhood role that sinks any hope of a life less responsible, even though his bro-ish friends still push reckless partying antics. A boy who desperately wants out, doing the best he can until opportunity comes in the form of his crush's newfound Jedi mind tricks. Once in a lifetime kind of stuff.

Thus kickstarts an X-Men-esque "Bonnie and Clyde" escape from local authorities, worried boyfriends and governmental agents in rubbery Hazmat suits. One minute Sean and Alex are ordering chicken fingers, the next Tom's pickup is getting split in half after a burst of concentrated energy. Complexities arise when renegade researcher Cal (Saïd Taghmaoui) tries to offer help, but First Light largely remains a young adult story about facing the unknown together. From the moment Alex breaks through her bedroom window and stops Sean from splatting ground-down with an outreached arm, there's no turning back. No shutting Alex out this time for Sean (despite dangerous side-effects, which I'll keep spoiler free), even if it means living forever off the grid with a girlfriend who doesn't understand her own extraterrestrial gift.

I've seen too many "pseudohero" scripts that either undersell dramatic beats in favor of splashy action or drably overcompensate for budgetary shortcomings in the "powers" department. Films that wish to devour their radioactive cakes despite lacking balanced ingredients. That is not First Light, as Mr. Stone is able to deftly establish human stakes and unbelievable exploits alike. We care just as much about Sean and Alex's dangerous road trip than we do telekinetic outbursts. Establish character, develop fantasy, then collide both aspects in a magical blur of the energetically undefined. This is easier said than done (even just considering SXSW 2018's film slate), but Stone marries both the yin of passion with the yang of focused unpredictability.

To be fair, effects still do deserve proper mention. First as sparks of reddish or white screech through the sky, then as airborne constellations sketch more detailed sci-fi artistries. Alex's derived "abilities" allow her to crush soda cans, levitate cop cars and throw matter around with the flick of her wrist, increasing strength as First Light goes on. Stone's team adeptly puts care into what could have been cheap CGI moments, and score crucial points during a third act research facility scene with a gigantic desert spire surrounded by what appear to be sonic plates.

There are some stumbling blocks given the film's smaller-scale nature – confined to an Anytown, USA locale without much definition before finale landscapes –  yet the actors generally make the best of chemistry. Pellerin and Stefanie Scott dash frantically together, crafting a genuine bond between free-spirited children. Shocked glances come first, followed by survival realizations soon after. Less "significant" notes like Sean's lil' bro and his chocolate milk cereal or Grandma's big moment when Alex spends the night add sweet little supporting additions, if only to ensure the adolescent lead duo needn't carry every scene. High school crushing that culminates with an otherworldly end, so interesting and sincere a journey that swirls with starry-eyed curiosities.

Science fiction is a harder sell for this critic, but First Light nimbly condenses similar, more complicated stories for a greater storytelling accomplishment. Undefinable lights in the sky, upgraded human capabilities, zero answers as to why – we've seen this before, but that doesn't make Jason Stone's take any less interesting. On the contrary, these comparison points only work to highlight where Stone succeeds as others have previously faltered. A spark plug of intellectually-tinted genre filmmaking that glows bigger and brighter as time presses on, subtle but expansive in its sensible retelling of intergalactic inquisitions.

/Film Rating: 7 out of 10