The First Time (***½)

It’s pretty rare for me that I really dislike the majority of an opening scene to a movie that I subsequently love, but that’s the case with ‘The First Time’. The abrupt first scene/introduction to our two main characters is too fast and writer/director Jon Kasdan seems way too overeager to get them interacting instead of introducing us to them properly first. The thing is, by the end of the scene, your interest is piqued, and from there on out it’s an absolute pleasure of a film. This teenage romance is a true dramedy, never too light and never too heavy, with characters that manage to feel like true teens while still embracing the eccentricities that only movie characters can have. Many of the monologues and conversations that our main characters have are the types of big speeches that most films reserve for their climax, but Kasdan packs the flick with them, and it’s a testament to his talents that this never bothers you. It was something he did to a lesser extent in his underrated début feature ‘In the Land of Women’, and here he ups his game a great deal. With lovable lead performances by Dylan O’Brien and Britt Robertson, Kasdan has crafted a flick that I absolutely fell in love with. It opens towards the end of October, and I really hope to show just how much I loved the movie. Right now, it’s one of the 10 best things that I’ve seen all year…

The film takes place over one weekend and chronicles the coming together of two kindred souls. When we first meet Dave Hodgman (O’Brien), he’s in an alley outside of a big party rehearsing a speech he’s planning on giving, one that will confess his love to Jane (Victoria Justice), a stunning beauty who currently only sees him as a platonic friend. While reciting part of it, Aubrey Miller (Robertson) comes up behind him, wondering what’s going on. They’ve never met, but the spark between them is instantaneous, even if neither one initially realizes it. Dave is quick to explain what he’s doing, and Aubrey is even quicker to give advice, but soon their conversation turns more about each other than Jane, and when the party inside is broken up, they head to her house together. She has an older boyfriend in Ronny (James Frecheville) and her parents (Joshua Malina and Christine Taylor) are home, but she invites him in and they spend the night together, not sure what it means. The next day, fate throws them together again and that’s when they begin to acknowledge the inevitable. The fledgling romance between the high school senior with a set plan for his life and the junior unsure about almost everything in hers isn’t necessarily preordained to work though, and the two will have to figure out if their connection is truly love or just a very deep friendship, especially when they begin to factor sex into the equation. The plot isn’t the most original out there, but it’s done in such a luminously effective way that I couldn’t care less.

I don’t have much to go on previously with most of the cast, but they all impressed me. Dylan O’Brien is a solid leading man here, though I haven’t seen his take on Stiles in the TV version of ‘Teen Wolf’, so I don’t know if this is surprising or not. Britt Robertson absolutely captivated me as the offbeat girl who throws a curveball at the “manic pixie dream girl” cliché that the role could have been in less steady hands than Kasdan and Robertson herself, who I’ve seen in a few things before, but never really noticed her until now. Both have a tremendous amount of chemistry and are among my absolute favorite on-screen couples of the year. As mentioned above, I didn’t like the first scene at all, but by the end I appreciated it as an introduction to these fantastic characters. Each subsequent scene gets better, so you just keep falling for these two more and more. As for the rest of the cast, they mostly manage to make their marks with what limited screen time that they have, since obviously the focus is on the leads. Joshua Malina and Christine Taylor make the most of their scenes as Aubrey’s parents. They’re loving people, but they just don’t understand their daughter, which is something they’re sadly well aware of. Craig Roberts has a memorable supporting turn as Dave’s small English friend Simon, while James Frecheville and Victoria Justice are solid too as Aubrey’s oddball older boyfriend and the platonic friend that Dave carries a torch for, respectively. Justice especially has an appeal to her that the film definitely brings out. Maggie Elizabeth Jones, Lamarcus Tinker, Halston Sage, and Matthew Fahey round out the cast, but it’s all about O’Brien and Robertson for me.

By adopting an approach like ‘Before Sunrise’ at times and also by focusing on a romantic connection based on conversation above all else, filmmaker Jon Kasdan is seeking to make a film that reflects the real nature of relationships. Aside from an occasional misstep during the final third of the film, he succeeds in a big way. Especially in how he handles sex, which is where the title comes from, he’s being honest in a way most filmmakers never dare to be with their movies aimed at teenagers. The direction is crisp and focused on just letting the characters evolve, which is an asset since his script is absolutely top notch and incredibly observational about teenagers and their mindsets. By mixing some of the ideas of Richard Linklater’s aforementioned film with the sensibility of John Hughes, Kasdan has made a movie that will really speak to teens, but one that isn’t talking down to or specifically to them either. That’s rare in a flick of this sort and I’d love to see the Academy consider it for a Best Original Screenplay nomination, even though I know that that’s a huge long shot.

Quite simply put, ‘The First Time’ is phenomenal stuff. This is one of my favorite films of 2012 so far and deserves a lot of attention when it opens in a few weeks. It could easily have seemed clichéd and forgettable in less skilled hands, but instead it’s one of the most memorable movies of the year to me. The characters, the writing, the overall charm, all of it is just up there in the stratosphere for me. I can’t say enough about ‘The First Time’. It really is that good and I can’t wait for all of you to see it as well! You’ll be thrilled that you did…

Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!