The First Time, which came out last year and is now available to rent on iTunes, is a great movie. I exaggerate when I say that “no one” has seen this film. Slightly more than 100 people have reviewed the film, which stars Dylan O’Brien and Britt Robertson, on iTunes, and the average iTunes rating of the film is 4.5 stars, an average that isn’t easy to come by in this world.
I chose to rent this movie over other options on my to-watch list, like Searching for Sugar Man and Rust and Bone, essentially because of the high ratings. I was depressed, and temporarily enclosed in a cold, dark hotel room, and I wanted something that was guaranteed to be good — heartwarming, uplifting, cheesy, possibly clever, and above all distracting, but not vapidly so. The reviews of The First Time themselves warmed my heart, so I was easily persuaded. I’ve watched this movie nine times in the past seven days, reads one review.
The First Time was written and directed by relatively young writer-director Jon Kasdan, who got his start as a writer on Freaks and Geeks and Dawson’s Creek and, more recently, has directed lots of episodes of Californication. He also wrote the 2007 film In the Land of Women starring Kristen Stewart, Meg Ryan and Adam Brody. Never mind that. Unless it was good. It didn’t look good.
The First Time stars a pair of big-screen newcomers: Britt Robertson most notably has played Lux Cassidy in Life Unexpected and Dylan O’Brien plays Stiles in Teen Wolf. Like any eager advertisement for a teen film, the trailer for The First Time is a flurry of pool splashes, Solo cups, bikini-clad babes, repartees, lip-locking and low-grade violence. That does not really capture the experience of watching the actual film. That’s a good thing.
The First Time feels like a play. Its settings are contained enough that they could be rendered well on a stage, and its dialogue is incessant, overly sophisticated and urgent in a way that theater is usually allowed to be. Within the first five minutes of the film, Robertson and O’Brien’s characters, Aubrey and Dave, are having a philosophical discussion about “talkers” vs. “doers” (Dave is a talker, and a bit like the teenage version of Shakespeare as portrayed in Shakespeare in Love, or maybe a less annoying — and more attractive — Dawson Leery). Loitering outside a house party, Dave, a senior at a neighboring school, explains to Aubrey, whom he has just met, that he is in love with a girl in his class named Jane (Victoria Justice). Alas, he and Jane are stuck in the Friend Zone, Dave having only been subjected to many a late-night conversation in which Jane pours her heart out about all the scumbags she’s been dating and/or sleeping with. Jane is blind to the clear romantic potential of Dave, and within minutes of meeting him, Aubrey explains to Dave why that might be so.
Dave reads Aubrey a letter that he’s considering giving to Jane. In it, he complains about all the “noise” in the world (citing, hilariously, not the Internet but “magazines,” which makes me think that Kasdan wrote this script before the Internet existed) and explains that the mere (voluptuous, VS catalog-worthy) existence of Jane helps drown out all the noise, particularly when she tucks her hair behind her ear. When he’s done reading the letter, Aubrey, who is not even remotely not pretty herself, because of course we are still in Hollywood, looks pitifully at Dave and says:
She doesn’t really care about that shit, you know? The noise and the magazines. And she definitely doesn’t want to hear about how beautiful she is when she tucks her hair behind her ears. I mean, I doubt she really wants to hear anything. All she wants to feel is a little less freaked out than she does. Which is probably very. So she wants to be with a guy who’s less freaked out than she is. So if you can be that guy, then rad! But if you can’t, then you’re not going to be her dude.
“I’m never going to be her dude, am I?” Dave responds.
“Not with that attitude.”
This might seem like diving into the deep end, considering that the film just began. It is. But what a perfect little nugget of truth. She wants to be with a guy that’s less freaked out than she is. Me too, movie. Me too.
So it’s already clear where the film is headed. And if it isn’t, in a second it will be: Britt and Dave start slow-dancing in the alley, skipping the house party entirely. But Kasdan surprises with the priorities he makes over the next 90 minutes and the way he paces those priorities. Do these kids talk like grownups (an insult levied on Kasdan’s former place of work Dawson’s Creek)? Yes, definitely. Do they heavy-handedly curse the era in which they were born, ridiculing millennial mainstays like social media and online dating? Definitely. Is Victoria Justice’s character another cliché of the prettiest girl in school, with perfect skin and boobs and a poor vocabulary and not much else? Sure. But who said a movie had to be realistic? Kasdan is stubbornly not-Hollywood half the time and stubbornly Hollywood the other half, and in this case at least, this is the ideal balance for a good film.
As the title would suggest, this movie is about sex. Mostly bad sex, and the anticipation of sex, and the intellectualization of sex, and the intellectualization of everything but sex in active, stubborn avoidance of sex. Aubrey, naturally, is a “talker” too, and these two kids can’t just shut up and do, despite practically being urged to do so by Aubrey’s very chill parents (Christine Taylor and Joshua Malina), who, when their daughter announces the existence of Dave, privately remark that this — a boy in their introverted, artsy daughter’s life — should be appreciated because it is “never going to happen again.”
In one interesting choice, Kasdan has Jane’s character fade rather quickly from view, not in the last twenty minutes of the film, as you might expect, but within the first hour. The focus rapidly shifts to Dave and Aubrey: their banter, their hopes and dreams, their lack of communication skills, their sexual attraction to each other, their confused maneuvering around the other people in their lives, including Aubrey’s older emo boyfriend Ronny (above, played excellently by James Frecheville, who basically turns the role into a character study of Russell Brand), as well as Dave’s well-cast sidekicks, the snarky Brit Simon (Craig Roberts) and a reticent linebacker known as Big Corporation (Lamarcus Tinker). Sometimes the dialogue is overwhelming, cloying, full-to-bursting with its I’m-almost-in-college cerebral enthusiasm. But often it’s exactly right. Which is to say, realistic. And we begin to wonder whether we actually did talk a bit like this in high school, or at least aspired to, and that bad movies and other cultural goings-on just helped us to think — and act — to the contrary.