The First Time: Sundance Film Review

The First Time

U.S. Dramatic Festival

An inoffensive but lukewarm look at a consummation devoutly to be gotten over with.

Britt Robertson, Dylan O'Brien and Victoria Justice star in director Jonathan Kasdan's second feature, about two teenagers losing their virginity.

Honesty and contrivance do an uneasy dance in The First Time. Jonathan Kasdan’s second feature, after In the Land of Women in 2007,  genuinely aims to capture the nervousness, hesitation, insecurity and excitement surrounding a mutual loss of virginity between two teenagers. At the same time, however, the writer-director lards the sincerity with so much mild shtick and goofing around that the film’s tone falls somewhere midway between an earnest student-written play and an R-rated studio sex comedy. Kids in their late teens, especially girls, would likely respond well to the film’s sensitivity and TV-familiar cast, but drawing a mainstream crowd to such a low-budgeter will require special skills from an enterprising distributor.

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The first 25 minutes actually feel like the first act of a two-character play, as high school senior Dave (Dylan O’Brien, of TV’s Teen Wolf) and Aubrey (Britt Robertson, Life Unexpected), a junior from another school, meet by chance in an alleyway outside a house where a big teen Friday night party is not suiting their moods. So quickly that it seems a bit artificial, they make a connection. While both profess to have other romantic interests in their lives — well, sort of — they are open enough to walk back to her house together and for her to invite him to her room where they talk, both awkwardly and with increased intimacy, until they fall asleep on the floor. In the morning, Dave has to escape out the window to avoid parental detection.

Saturday begins with a diner session where Dave confides in his cleverly matched buddies, sardonic Brit Daldry (Craig Robertson, from “Submarine”) and a hulking black football player amusingly called Big Corporation (LaMarcus Tinker, of Glee). From the point of view of Dave and Aubrey getting together again, however, that night promises to be tricky; Aubrey has a movie date with older musician Ronny (James Frecheville, Animal Kingdom), who arrogantly announces that he plans to have sex with her in his van.

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An amusing set piece in a multiplex theater has Aubrey and Ronny, Dave and Jane (Victoria Justice), a girl he’s always fancied; Dave’s pals and assorted others all eyeing each other during a showing of a particularly loud and violent film. The thought occurs that the scene could have been much funnier had they all been wearing 3D glasses.

After numerous other hesitations and complications, by Sunday Dave and Aubrey inevitably end up back in her room for the big event, which doesn’t play out in a conventional way. The couple’s satisfaction is one thing, but whether it’s satisfying from an audience perspective is another matter, as Kasdan, after minutely documenting the build-up to the key moment, cuts away and leaves one to speculate as to exactly how the long-awaited consummation went down. The title being what it is, one feels cheated not being able to share the entire experience with the characters.

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Despite intermittent laughs and charm, The First Time feels slight and pretty ordinary by the end, with no edge or compelling insights, just a reasonable feel for teen attitudes and banter. Competently if not radiantly played by O’Brien and Robertson, the leading characters aren’t that special, lacking both the radiance and individuality needed to create a strong rooting interest in the relationship.

Craft contributions are average.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Dramatic Competition)
Production: Jerimaca Film
Cast: Britt Robertson, Dylan O’Brien, Victoria Justice, Craig Robertson, James Frecheville, Lamarcus Tinker, Joshua Malina, Christine Taylor, Maggie Jones, Halston Sage
Director: Jonathan Kasdan
Screenwriter: Jonathan Kasdan
Producers: Martin Shafer, Liz Glotzer
Executive producers: Liah Kim, Carol Fuchs
Director of photography: Rhet Bear
Production designer: Keith Cunningham
Costume designer: Michele Posch
Editor: Hugh Ross
Music: Alec Puro
98 minutes