Written, produced and directed by Elisabeth Fies, The Commune (2009) is an independent thriller that follows the exploits of a young teen named Jenny, who is staying at her deadbeat dad's commune for the summer. Jenny harbors much negativity for her father (played by Stuart G. Bennett) as he abandoned her and her mother both emotionally and financially to live a carefree life as the leader of a New Age cult. However, after all these years, he now wants to rekindle his relationship with his angst-filled daughter, but his reasoning for doing so might be more sinister than simply wanting redemption for his past parental neglect.
While The Commune doesn't necessarily come right out and tell you where the film will go on a thriller level, you will have a good idea as to where things could end up simply due to that delicate line between free loving hippies and full on delusional cult psychos. Now, while there is a twist that actually caught me by surprise, and in a good way, the film is not so much focused on forcing the thriller angle down its viewer's throat as it is on projecting the difficulties of a teenage girl going through the motions of becoming a woman.
The viewer is privy to a first hand look at Jenny dealing with her daddy issues as well as her budding sexuality. She is fiercely independent, something which is clearly attributed to her mother's upbringing, but her independence is heavily challenged within the ironically confined commune setting she is now begrudgingly living in. Which is something that is kind of interesting, actually, as the people within the commune speak of freedom from religious oppression, openness and the ability to express one's self, yet Jenny is constantly judged for being who she is while also not given the privacy she, a 16-year-old girl, desires. Jenny is portrayed by Chauntal Lewis, a strikingly gorgeous actress who is uncannily reminiscent of a young Jordan Ladd (who I adore). Lewis has an immediate screen presence about her and plays the role of Jenny well enough. She is clearly not playing to her actual age, but at certain moments, she does an admirable job capturing the rebellious innocence of a teenage girl hurdling down the highway of adulthood.
While The Commune plays more to the character growth and development of Jenny than it does the thriller aspect, something which is mostly refreshing and honest, it is also that aspect of the film that suffers from its only real issue. There are a few moments in the second half of the movie where things crawl at a pace only a tortoise could appreciate. These specific moments are a result of extended scenes between Jenny and her budding relationship with a local stud named Puck (David Lago), who thankfully keeps his fingers out of the peanut butter. The overall romantic story thread between Jenny and Puck is not at all boring unto itself, and the entire relationship is very important to Jenny's character arc, but some of their scenes just go on a tad too long. And maybe that's the guy in me who says that (why's there a guy in me? Gross!!), but I think it more or less comes from someone watching a thriller, to be fair.
As mentioned, the story and female character development are something worth strong compliment from me, but where The Commune shines brightest is in the surprising visual prowess of the film as a whole. For a low-budget feature, The Commune looks very clean and is nicely shot with a level of high quality rarely found in an independent horror film. Adding another layer to the visual stamina of the film is a visually fulfilling spectrum of colors that runs across the screen, with a vibrant color palate that is overly bold and exotic, giving a false sense of ease meant to mask the true intentions of those who surround Jenny. A lot of this can be attributed to the amazingly picturesque location (the film was shot at Isis Oasis, a retreat center and ocelot wildlife preserve in Geyserville, California), but there was clearly attention paid to the cohesiveness of the location, specific character wardrobes and set dressings as well as lighting techniques used.
In many ways, The Commune is really a coming of age tale with a thread of thriller laced throughout and a splash of quirkiness thrown in for good measure. If you are one who has little interest or desire to watch a film which sheds light on a young girl's discovery of who she really is, in more ways than one, then The Commune might not work for you. For me, it's something I can appreciate on a number of levels. I truly enjoyed the character driven approach to what results in a fairly creepy, low-key, paranoid thriller as well as the impressive technical demeanor that was shown from someone who was essentially a first time feature filmmaker in Elisabeth Fies.
You can pick up The Commune on DVD for super cheap on the film's official website, where you can also read more about the movie, check out some other reviews and all sorts of good stuff.