'First Date': Film Review | Sundance 2021

First Date
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival
Lotsa quirks. Never clicks.

Manuel Crosby and Darren Knapp's comedy sets many, many obstacles between the meeting of a high-school kid and the girl he's obsessed with.

An out-all-night odyssey in which romance is interrupted by a compounding series of mishaps and crimes, Manuel Crosby and Darren Knapp's First Date follows in the tradition of similarly named predecessors like Date Night, Blake Edwards' Blind Date, et cetera. In this case, the misadventure is mostly had by the would-be suitor (Tyson Brown), who gets waylaid time and again before he can even meet the longtime crush (Shelby Duclos) he can't believe agreed to go out with him. This is the first feature for both leads, and the writer-directors would've done well to concentrate more on them — prioritizing chemistry over introducing an increasingly quirky populace of characters whose antics keep them apart. While the two young thesps acquit themselves nicely, much around them conspires to prevent their debut from being a memorable one.

Brown plays Mike, an almost impossibly shy kid whose extreme passivity will become distracting (rather than character-defining) over the course of the film. His pal Brett (Josh Fesler) has to push him through every second of calling Duclos' Kelsey and asking her out, and it's only after he gets a yes and hangs up that he realizes he doesn't have a car to pick her up in. Of the many, many options one might consider in this situation, one of the least likely for a high-school kid in what looks to be an unprosperous town is to grab $2,700 out of a coffee can and run off to buy a used car on your way to the date. But at Brett's urging, that's what he does.

Dennis (Scott E. Noble), the obviously shady guy Brett goes to meet, pulls a bait and switch, revealing that the advertised car isn't available any more. Instead he offers a heap of junk in his garage — a decaying '60s Chrysler that most high-school girls would think twice about getting into. Then again, Kelsey seems pretty nonjudgmental and mature (maybe in part because Duclos is clearly several years past graduation age), so maybe the car's not a dealbreaker. Until we learn what's in it.

Mike stumbles into multiple difficulties (from a traffic stop to being shot at by a deranged woman) before he realizes he's in real trouble: A huge quantity of cocaine is hidden in the Chrysler, put there by Dennis' brother. And a lot of people are looking for it.

Those people tend to project the manufactured quirkiness that (in an insult to the makers of Fargo) usually gets labeled "Coen-esque." Some are a gang of hoods who conduct a book club while staking out a victim's house; one keeps a ski mask on even when everyone around knows him. They bicker a lot. They aren't funny. And their performances are incoherently directed: Some of them would be credible in a mainstream teen comedy; some are mannered; some look like they're auditioning for Mad TV.

In between pathetic "sorry I'm running late" calls to Kelsey, Mike gets assaulted, kidnapped, has his car stolen, loses his phone and involuntarily witnesses geriatric sex. He's a wide-eyed victim throughout, and when he's fortunate enough to tumble out of captivity, it looks almost like an accident that he finds his way to Kelsey's house.

The film gets a bit more enjoyable as soon as the two share the screen together. But they have precious little time for flirty banter before Knapp and Crosby throw them back into action copped from other genre movies. This time it's a True Romance-like standoff between teams of heavily armed people arguing over drugs and money. It's amazing how much of this mayhem Mike survives before the script decides it's time for him to do something.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (NEXT)
Production company: Cinexus
Cast: Tyson Brown, Shelby Duclos, Jesse Janzen, Nicole Berry, Samuel Ademola, Ryan Quinn Adams, Angela Barber, Dave Reimer, Jake Howard, Samantha Laurenti, Scott Noble, Leah Finity, Josh Fesler, Brandon Kraus
Directors-Screenwriters: Manuel Crosby, Darren Knapp
Producers: Manuel Crosby, Darren Knapp, Brandon Kraus, Lucky McKee, Charles Horak
Director of photography: Manuel Crosby
Editors: Zach Passero, Manuel Crosby
Composers: Noah Lowdermilk, Kevin Kentera, Manuel Crosby

102 minutes