“First, Last and Deposit” is easily the most bizarre and schizophrenic film of the year. This is a film completely at war with itself: a heartbreaking screenplay and two extraordinary performances are locked inside a production which is so amateurish in its execution that it makes the average public access television programing look like a Dreamworks release. Few films ever cry out for being remade, but “First, Last and Deposit” is the rare exception. Had this been helmed by professional filmmakers, it would have been a devastating Oscar shoo-in. As it stands, it is a thunderbolt diminished in the confines of a baffling mess.
“First, Last and Deposit” focuses on the downward spiral into poverty faced by a thirtysomething mother (Sara Wilcox) and her 13-year-old daughter (Jessica White). Originally from Arizona, they relocated to Santa Barbara, California, when the mother’s boorish boyfriend (Jason Hallows) secures work as a foreman. However, that job abruptly vanishes after a short time and so does the boyfriend, who moves out with his TV, VCR and no explanation. The mother, who works as a supermarket cashier, is unable to cover their bills. Within a short time, the mother and daughter are evicted and their belongings are tossed into the street. Soon they are reduced to living out of a car which, as luck would have it, gets stolen, then recovered by the police but is then impounded due to unpaid parking tickets. The daughter’s schoolmates soon discover that she is homeless and the mother, in an act of desperation, steals a car but is caught and arrested while her daughter watches in horror.
“First, Last and Deposit” is blessed with amazing performances by its two non-professional lead actresses. Young Jessica White is the most astonishing new juvenile performer to step before the camera and one would have to carry a heart of stone not to be moved by her portrayal of a girl imprisoned in poverty and shame, lying wildly to her friends to give an impression of luxury and nearly dying of embarrassment when the truth comes out. As her mother, Sara Wilcox provides an accomplished blend of love and helplessness in her take on a good woman battered by circumstances too far beyond her control. It is an emotional and towering performance which never drips with maudlin insincerity or crypto-feminism, and the conviction of her acting is so strong that it leaves the audience wondering where this wonderful actress came from and how far she can travel from this film. Both women are blessed with an accomplished and unusually mature screenplay by Peter Hyoguchi, from a story by Duffy Hecht, which wisely avoids sugar-coating niceties to expose the horror of modern-day poverty and the cruelty of a society which has no sympathy or niche for those without cash. (And a special praise is required of Christopher James Thomas’ subtle musical score.)
But sadly, “First, Last and Deposit” is burdened with an atrocious technical production. Although he created a stunning screenplay, as a director and cinematographer Peter Hyoguchi is the worst and his behind-the-camera work nearly sabotages the film at every opportunity. The cinematography here is among the least professional imaginable: shot on a Sony PC10 Mini DV camcorder, it looks like a shabby home movie complete with harsh outdoor lighting, grainy interiors, and ridiculous wobbles and zooms at the least welcome moments. The camera is generally too far away from the actors or weirdly off-center, creating asymmetrical blocking which is at odds with the on-target performances (the film’s technical aspects are so abysmal that it is impossible to give credit to the director for bringing the sterling performances out of his cast–it seems the actresses shine irrelevant of the director rather than because of him). If that isn’t bad enough, Hyoguchi allowed the film to be completed with stretches of unintelligible sound that require the utmost patience to piece together. Has anyone attached to this film ever heard of post-synch looping, or even checking the microphones?
It is a shame that “First, Last and Deposit” was not properly produced. If this film has proper production values, it would have been a major art house hit. As it stands, it is a weird offering providing equal parts of emotional power and technical puerility. Will a real filmmaker please come forward, take the screenplay and the film’s stars, and give this work the treatment it truly deserves? There is a great film in “First, Last and Deposit” dying to get out.