From the Archives: Spiral Farm is a compelling look at an insular existence

From the Archives: Spiral Farm is a compelling look at an insular existence

In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it. 

Without further ado, I present to you: FROM THE ARCHIVES.

Originally posted on Cinema76.

The term for a film like Spiral Farm is “slice-of-life.” Meaning that it’s a candid window into the life and times of its characters. Oftentimes, slice-of-life tales buck conventional screenwriting wisdom in that it dictates that the plot events of a film should be the most important of at least one character’s life. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be a reason for the story to exist. Yet the films of this style beg to differ. Slices of life will frequently show just any random day, with the story being less focused on a singular event, and more focused on the characters’ day-to-day existence. Basically, it’s not the slice that matters, but the life it’s being pulled from.

Such is the deal with Spiral Farm, an atypical coming of age tale that chronicles a few days in the life of Anahita (Piper De Palma), a young woman who lives on a commune called, you guessed it, Spiral Farm. Along with her sister Sahaja (Jade Fusco), her mother Di (Amanda Plummer), and a handful of others, folks living at Spiral Farm spend their days keeping the commune alive. They grow things, build things, and engage in worship which quite often involves group sex, an activity that Anahita is reticent to partake in.


Anahita frequently breaks off from the group to a secluded wooded area where she practices her hip-hop dance moves in the hopes of one day doing something, anything, outside of her normal routine. And when Di brings a new lover to the commune, who in turn brings his wanderlust-afflicted son, Anahita’s fantasies of freedom might have a chance to manifest.

What makes Spiral Farm so compelling is that it doesn’t fall into typical “cult” trappings. Up until this point I’ve been avoiding the term “cult” even though we all know that’s what Spiral Farm really is. The reason being that the film itself is not heavily concerned with the goals/methods/beliefs of the cult. It’s not really about that. There’s no race against the clock in anticipation of a mass suicide, no overbearing leader that clearly wants to bed every woman in the group, no faux-magical speak of what lies beyond this life. Instead, the film relies on our preconceived notions about what occurs in a cult to color the texture of the narrative. Anahita’s repression is a result of many factors, and her desire to break free looks identical to any young woman looking to leave home, cult or no.


We learn about the relationships between the characters in a similar way. Writer/director Alec Tibaldi smartly avoids all exposition, instead letting the characters do the work by simply existing. Before long we get an understanding of the family dynamic that Anahita, Di, and Sahaja share, which in turn motivates their sometimes erratic behavior. Visually, too, the story is brought to life. Shot mostly (if not entirely) handheld, we get to be a fly on the wall. A passive observer. My personal distaste for too much handheld camera work barely came into play, because here it mostly works. In addition, Tibaldi employs a subtle shifting of frame as well. By switching between aspect ratios, Tibaldi is able to communicate moments of freedom and moments of repression effectively and silently. As Anahita’s world gets bigger, so does the lens through which we share her experience. In moments where she regresses, the frame closes in. Future viewings, of which there will be many, will likely clarify more of the intentions of this visual choice, but even upon first viewing it’s simultaneously subtle and striking.


Films like this often live and die by their performances, and across the board they are quite impressive. Amanda Plummer does ‘confidently damaged’ better than anyone, and here she’s a powerhouse. I felt pity toward her that was mixed with revulsion. A fine line to walk, but she nails it. Jade Fusco gives perhaps my favorite performance of the film. It’s hard to get a read on Sahaja, but not cryptically so. At the same time, I’ve met a Sahaja before, and this depiction is spot on.

And of course we have Piper De Palma at the center of it all, carrying the emotional heft with a subdued, often charming performance. It’s a very physical performance, as Anahita is a woman of few words, but every small nuance down to the slightest glance hits home. She’s absolutely hypnotic, and by the end of the film I understand her life choices, even if I’m not entirely on board with them.

All in all, Spiral Farm is a compelling tale told in a smart, subtle way. I look forward to more from Tibaldi.

Spiral Farm is available for digital rental.

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