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Sundance Review: Jonathan Kasdan's 'The First Time'
Britt Robertson and Dylan O'Brien star in an appealing coming-of-age film
It's easy to pitch "The First Time" in terms that aren't going to make it sound appetizing to most of the snooty film fans up in Park City for the Sundance Film Festival.
Jonathan Kasdan's coming-of-age dramedy features a cast led by stars of "The Secret Circle," MTV's "Teen Wolf" and "Victorious" and plays more like a 90-minute episode of "Dawson's Creek" than like the John Hughes classics that inspired The WB drama.
There's something very "TV" about "The First Time," which sounds like it ought to be pejorative, but really isn't. It just happens that when you have a writer-director who cut his teeth working for the small screen and you bring in an ensemble of actors who honed their craft on the small screen, the result is sometimes a little more polished than what you might get from an art school grad making the leap from short films and working with a cast of unknowns he or she started using back in college.
"The First Time" doesn't look or feel like a Sundance competition entry, but if you overlook it due to that television pedigree, you'll miss out on an effectively sweet, frequently clever offering buoyed by an attractive group of stars who aren't really newcomers, but will seem like newcomers to most festival audiences.
Click through for my full review of "The First Time"...
Set over one eventful weekend, "The First Time" is the story of Aubrey (Britt Robertson) and Dave (Dylan O'Brien), two attractive and attractively earnest high schoolers who meet in the alley behind a Friday night party. Because they go to different schools, they've never met. Chivalrous and romantic Dave isn't experienced with love, but he knows he has a thing for the unobtainable Jane (Victoria Justice), who teases him with long conversations, but hooks up with other guys. Old soul Aubrey has an endearing set of neuroses and a poorly explained relationship with much-too-old-to-be-dating-high-school-girls douche Ronny (James Frecheville). Since they both have alternative romantic attachments, their meet-cute progresses as a lengthy conversational waltz, with the two characters circling each other before things inevitably deepen.
As you're smart enough to gather from the movie's title, Dave and Aubrey are being set up to engage in one of teen drama's most familiar tropes, but "The First Time" has more than just sex on its mind.
Kasdan -- son of Lawrence and brother of Jake -- has written a world of teenage characters who mostly talk like they're in their 30s, generally seem to have been raised in the '80s and yet respond to youthful milestones in a way that seems timeless, albeit slightly affected.
From Hughes to Kevin Williamson to Josh Schwartz to Cameron Crowe, familiar fingerprints abound in "The First Time," but only because teenage insecurity has many facets that are universal, even if your main character doesn't believe in Facebook or Twitter and says things like, "Everything cool has been ruined, it was before we got here."
A lot of the film rests on Robertson and O'Brien and both actors deliver.
I wasn't surprised by Robertson's sturdiness, since adolescent vulnerability has been the strong suit in her "Life Unexpected" and "Secret Circle" performances. Robertson's also adroit with comedy and removed from her CW context and transposed to the Sundance screen, she comes across as an only-slightly-less-brassy version of Juno Temple, one of last year's Sundance breakouts.
I was more taken aback by O'Brien, whose Stiles has been one of the more appealing elements of MTV's generally unappealing misappropriation of the "Teen Wolf" brand. Liberated from being poorly written comic relief, O'Brien acquits himself honorably in a role which, in a different year, would have been played by John Cusack (whose sister is name-checked) or Adam Brody (star of Kasdan's previous feature "In the Land of Women").
The supporting characters are generally less vividly written, but several of the actors make fine impressions. Josh Malina and Christine Taylor make the most of their two scenes as Aubrey's wise-cracking, caring parents, while Craig Robertson ("Submarine") and LaMarcus Tinker ("Cougar Town") get a few good lines apiece as Dave's always-available best friends. And although I've always suspected Victoria Justice is a good five or 10 years older than her Disney-supported bio claims, I have no such skepticism regarding her screen presence, which is ample. I even got some chuckles from Frecheville, whose wooden performance in "Animal Kingdom" was a big part of why I couldn't wholly support that Sundance winner.
Nothing that happens in the plot of "The First Time" is all that original, but I was interested in Kasdan's eagerness to let scenes play out in long, soul-searching conversations, an instinct that's either theatrical -- were the characters older, I could imagine this being staged as a one-act two-hander -- or straight-up Hughes-ian. This results in a deliberate pacing that maybe isn't quite in keeping with the accelerated timeframe or the TV trappings.
Shot by Rhet Bear, "The First Time" is brightly lit in every frame. If the Sundance aesthetic can usually be reduced to "gritty," "The First Time" is the opposite of that. This isn't a movie designed for an art-house. It should be able to play multiplexes and the decade-spanning soundtrack is practically a mix-tape for multiple generations.
I spend a lot of my Sundance time at soul-search documentaries and boundary-pushing narrative films. "The First Time" probably isn't going to leave the Festival with any awards, but there's virtue to likable and relatable as well.