Sunday, April 21, 2013

"The First Time" Is a Rousing Teen Movie Success

My high school experience was pretty uneventful.  I was relatively well-liked as far as I know, but my social life never really extended much outside of my school's halls.  Instead of hanging out with friends or whatever it is that young people do, my after-school hours were mostly spent listening to music and reading books in my room.  I didn't drink, so I was never really invited to parties either.  When all is said and done, if I ever become somebody important, I imagine that my high school years will be glossed over in the story of my life.

I tend to latch on to tv shows and movies about teens, partially because I find that they are a way to fulfill all of the experiences that I lacked growing up.  There's a sense of emotional intensity during adolescence that dulls as you grow up, and it's an odd comfort to experience those feelings vicariously through stories.  I'm so fond of teen shows and movies that I even watched Degrassi, a show that exists at the very bottom of the barrel of quality, much longer than I should have.  And that's the problem with the "teen" genre -- far too many of the shows that exist within it simply suck.  Many are written by adults who can't seem to remember their teenage experience and that they weren't idiots, so they dish out material to today's youth under the assumption that they are, in fact, the lowest common denominator.  Even good teen movies and tv shows tend to be a bit unrealistic.  Films like Mean Girls, Easy A, and Superbad are terrific, but they all offer up heightened versions of what high school is really like.

The First Time, Jon Kasdan's 2012 Sundance darling, initially starts out feeling like it's going to do very little to differentiate itself from any other generic, inauthentic teen movie.  The film's opening, which shows a Friday night party in full force before transitioning to the two protagonists, Dave and Aubrey (Dylan O'Brien and Britt Robertson), meeting in an alley outside of the party, is easily the weakest part of the film.  Everything, from the stiff meet-cute of the leads to the homogenized nature of the party, feels a bit too generic.  Luckily, the film begins to gain confidence, and over the course of about 98 minutes, The First Time reveals itself to be an honest, earnest, big-hearted little film.

Most of the success of the film can be boiled down to its atmosphere and characterization.  Despite some stumbling out of the gate, everything afterward just feels right.  It quickly takes on that Friday night feeling of wandering around, just waiting for the next chapter of the evening to present itself to you.  Like I said, I never got invited to many parties in high school, but the few I did go to were always less about getting drunk and doing the craziest thing possible, and more about everybody cordoning off into different groups and having rambling conversations.  Where most films go for the former's more exciting prospects, The First Time stays grounded in the truth of the latter.  All of the interactions between characters feel so believable too.  There's an ounce of reality that anyone who can remember being young will find, from the rhythms of speech to the body language.  It's hard not to catch a bit of a contact high from the hypnotically beautiful mood of these establishing scenes.

There are never any bones made about the uniqueness of the plot here either.  Straight from the beginning, the formula of the guy (O'Brien) who pines after one girl (the surprisingly great Victoria Justice) and gets advice from another girl (Robertson) is laid out and you pretty much have a sense of where it's going to end up by the time the credits roll.  But if the structure feels formulaic, it's only because it falls in line with the larger point of the film, which is all about young people feeling depth in platitudes and wrestling with things that seem self-evident.  Plus, the joy is in how the film gets to these checkpoints.  The movie plays out a bit like a young Before Sunrise, building its central relationship through warm, tender conversations.  Unlike other films that throw out obstacles to keep two people apart, ultimately the only thing standing in the way of Dave and Aubrey is themselves.  Both are nervous and neurotic, and they let their own uncertainties and insecurities seep out.  All of this is wrapped up in the aching sadness of the end of a school year, which is always a time where one looks back wistfully on every missed opportunity.

Much of the credit belongs to Robertson and O'Brien, who keep the film afloat with their incredible performances.  They have great chemistry and both sell the intensity of their characters' rapid connection.  The film does a bit too much stalling and sweating near the finish line, but it eventually pulls itself together for a rousing conclusion.  It's a shame that it never got a wider release, because I could see a crowd-pleaser like this being a huge hit.  Nevertheless, The First Time will go down as a minor classic of the genre in my eyes.

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