Practicing Yoga at the End of the World: First Winter

11/07/2012 4:00 AM |

First Winter
Directed by Benjamin Dickinson

This apocalyptic art-movie takes a bunch of Brooklyn hipsters, throws them into end-of-the-world isolation, and tests their ideals—and they pass! The folks at DieHipster would die. When we first meet the ensemble (which includes indie It-Girl Kate Lyn Sheil, though she’s essentially unused), they’re at an upstate yoga retreat in a farmhouse. They may be in their twenties, eating vegan, wearing facial hair, and interested in Eastern philosophies, but at root they resemble the teenage heroes of an 80s slasher movie: in fact, they do more drugs and have more—and more adventurous—sex than those Crystal Lake kids ever did. Soon the power goes out, and it doesn’t seem like mere infrastructural malfunction. Black smoke hovers on the horizon; a group goes to get help and never returns. The remainder are marooned in frozen country, the food and firewood supplies dwindling. Their yogi leader has failed them; they’re hungry, they’re tense, they’re despairing.

Making his theatrical feature debut, director Dickinson often shoots in unsettlingly tight close-ups, never letting you ground yourself spatially. Subtly told, his story is also poetically filmed, with lots of slow pullbacks; there’s a long shot that pans back and forth across bowls of food. Like other recent indies Green and Martha Marcy May Marlene, Dickinson exploits a horror aesthetic to produce a persistent sense of menace, though this isn’t actually a scary movie. “We don’t know what’s out there in the cold,” the yoga teacher tells his students, and we never find out. There’s no melodramatic madness here, no psychological unraveling (though jealousy and resentment emerge). This is more like Into the Wild: characters pitted against nature, its elemental problems like battling hunger and finding heat, without being properly trained, experienced, or equipped for it. (During filming, the cast and crew shot two deer out of hunting season without a license.) But things get better: First Winter resolves mostly without bloodshed or histrionics. The characters just deal with their crises, getting stronger from what doesn’t kill them. The moral feels religious: we struggle through adversity to reach enlightenment.

Opens Novemeber 16