Divorce – an ugly word that does ugly things to families. For some, it isn’t a big deal, Mom and Dad split on good terms; the kids get a fair shake and have a good relationship with both parents. Unfortunately, that isn’t how it usually works. In writer/director Elisabeth Fies’ film THE COMMUNE, Jenny Cross (Chauntal Lewis) found that the separation of her parents meant spending almost no time with her father as he pursued his “hippy nature” living in a strange religious compound in rural California. Now as she prepares to turn 16, Daddy’s back and he uses his long-ignored custodial privileges to force Jenny to join him for the summer at the religious compound he now runs.
The film starts out as you might expect from a story about a typical teenage girl forced to spend her summer vacation with a father (Stuart G. Bennett) she neither knows nor respects. Jenny is resentful of her situation, a feeling that becomes compounded as she is introduced to the eccentric lifestyle enjoyed by the members of the commune society. Rhea (Adrian Lea), an older woman, tries to take Jenny under her wing during her stay. But Rhea’s efforts have little success at making Jenny feel at home in her new surroundings. The situation is at first humorous as Jenny deals with things like Rhea’s touchy-feely attitude, the public nudity sometimes displayed by members of the group, and the general lack of personal space. However, throughout this, subtle, sinister undertones make themselves known. There is no lock on the door to Jenny’s room; video cameras record all activity in the compound, and children’s drawings show a disturbing level of sexuality. These all combine to make Jenny’s surroundings not only alien, but somewhat menacing.
Jenny seeks escape from her father and his friends by visiting the small town nearby. There she meets Puck (David Lago), a young musician whose easygoing nature and somewhat “bad boy” persona offer a welcome diversion from her situation at the compound. Of course, her father finds her associations with Puck tantamount to blasphemy and tries to prevent her from seeing him. This works as well as things usually do when a father tells his daughter not to see someone because he’s not good for her.
As her unhappiness in the commune grows, Jenny tries to get her mother to help her leave. Her mom, Cassie (Elisabeth Fies) sympathizes with Jenny, but she makes it clear that if Jenny doesn’t stay then the courts might take it as a sign that Cassie wasn’t raising her daughter right and give full custody to the girl’s father. However, she is suspicious enough of her ex-husband that she suggests Jenny snoop around and see what she can find out about her father’s religious group. Maybe there is something they could use to show he is the unfit one.
Jenny snoops and as she does, she not only learns more about her father and the cult that follows him, but she also starts remembering long since forgotten bits and pieces of her childhood – things that disturb her and make her more suspicious of her father’s intentions towards her.
Finally, when her cell phone, containing photos of all of the evidence she has collected, is stolen and Jenny is informed that her mother can’t make it to her sixteenth birthday party, the young girl has had enough. She flees to town and into the arms of Puck. Puck becomes upset when he realizes that Jenny is not a virgin, despite the fact that she told him she was. For her part, Jenny is dismayed. Although Puck believes she’s lied to him, the young girl really does believe she’s a virgin. When the pair suddenly find themselves back in the hands of the commune, things become frighteningly clear for Jenny, but it may be too late to make any difference for her.
THE COMMUNE is a psychological thriller that combines dark humor and mystery as Jenny unravels the true motivations of her father and his strange group of followers. The film’s cast is outstanding. Chauntal Lewis and David Lago have real on-screen chemistry together that makes their scenes together some of the most engaging of the film. This is strengthened by the quality of the story and believable dialog. Fies’s skills as both writer and director are further demonstrated by the way the story unfolds in a smooth fashion that hints nicely at the horrors below the surface without delving into them too soon just for the sake of a scare. THE COMMUNE, despite its independent roots, doesn’t fall into the same traps that plague many independent films. The cinematography is first class and works to enhance the ominous nature of life in the cult’s compound. The soundtrack is also worth noting, with good score and original music. THE COMMUNE an excellent independent film that could teach many of today’s major studios a thing or too about how to make an intelligent and original thriller. So check out THE COMMUNE, a real “cult” classic.