At an outdoor party sullen teenager Sean (Théodore Pellerin) is less than thrilled to run into his ex-girlfriend Alex (Stefanie Scott). So he leaves. Later that night, swimming in the lake with her new beau Alex sees strange lights in the sky. When her boyfriend resurfaces, Alex has disappeared. A few hours later Cal (Saïd Taghmaoui), a rogue scientist formerly employed by the U.S. government, discovers a shellshocked Alex wandering half-naked along the road. Alex contacts the one person she trusts, which is Sean who brings her to the house he shares with his sickly Grandma (Janet-Laine Green) and unruly kid brother Oscar (Percy Hynes White). Only to find aliens bestowed Alex with amazing paranormal abilities she uses to cure Grandma, make electronic devices go haywire and float objects around the room. Before long Sean and Alex are on the run from government agents driven to unearth what exactly the extraterrestrial forces have in store for the beleagured girl.
While not entirely successful in its aims, At First Light is a pleasing attempt at a more cerebral and character-driven young adult sci-fi thriller. South African born writer-producer-director Jason Stone, who previously made the short film that inspired it This Is The End (2013) and the Susan Sarandon-led murder mystery The Calling (2014), concocts a premise not too dissimilar from the more celebrated Chronicle (2012). Yet rather than go the superhero action route the plot skews closer to an indie fusion of Starman (1984) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) by way of early Richard Linklater. A low-key opening act starts as a grungy drama about delinquent teens, establishing Sean's troubled yet defiantly functional domestic situation. Stone exhibits a deft hand when it comes to grounding fantastical events in earthy reality and building an ominous atmosphere through inspired use of light and shadow, sinister scenery (which include stunning aerial shots that track characters from a godlike or UFO's point of view, their mundane lives dwarfed by some grand cosmic intelligence) and subtle Hitchcockian background details (keep an eye on the birds).
The main thrust of the plot concerns Alex trying to figure out her powers and purpose within an unfathomable alien scheme, gradually discovering her altered existence could prove lethal both for herself and Sean. Freed from the usual traumatic soap opera backstory, At First Light establishes Alex as a more complex heroine than is the norm in Y.A. genre films. However, despite a solid lead in former Disney Channel star turned Blumhouse horror staple Stefanie Scott, the script only allows Alex to see-saw from sullen to somnambulant, giving the viewer little sense of who she was as a person in comparison to the detail heaped on Sean. Consequently Alex's tragic transformation lacks dramatic weight and leaves us wondering why this story is told largely through Sean's point of view and not her's. While Stone's foregrounding of character development over special effects remains laudable, the story is somewhat diffuse and at times too leisurely for its own good. Kate Burton as a government scientist is the closest thing the film has to an antagonist yet does not arrive until an hour into a ninety minute running time. Nevertheless, for all its deficiencies, At First Light remains curiously compelling, at times even moving, throughout. Enlivened by sporadic sci-fi set-pieces and a range of intriguing ideas, even if those are not developed beyond a surface level. It functions ultimately as a story of literal star-crossed love.