The First Time: Teen Romance Seems New Again

Objectively, what the world needs now is another teen-romance-slash-virginity-loss dramedy like we need a hole in our collective movie heads. But Jonathan Kasdan's The First Time, against all odds, is something of a wonder, a palm-size ball of banter and irony and earnestness that never stops rolling and almost never misses the sweet spots. This is unexpected, especially coming as it does from yet another member of the Kasdan family, and there's some danger in overselling what essentially is a hardworking little trifle, a film that's all teen smart-assedness. But things like this thrive or die on ideas and texture, and both are in dizzying supply.

It's a teen rom-com in which every character is in active revolt against the stereotypical position he or she is helplessly taking. Aubrey (Britt Robertson) and Dave (Dylan O'Brien) meet in a Los Angeles alley outside a chaotic red-plastic-cup house party; she leaves out of disgust, he because he's rehearsing a lovesick speech to his school's alpha hottie (Nickelodeon star Victoria Justice), who keeps him as a friend-pet.

Expecting nothing but savvy understanding from each other, the two immediately click but don't quite know it; when the party breaks up, she invites him to her nearby McMansion, and the conversation continues, full of mistakes and dares and exploratory jabs. He's college-focused, she's a restless collage-maker in the process of covering the walls of her room, and they spit some of the bounciest, if not the most naturalistic, dialogue written for teenagers anyone has heard in years. Your first instinct might be to flinch at memories of Juno's overweening cleverness, but in Kasdan's insulated little weekend world, everyone, not just one snappy gamine, has his or her gears turning, and yet none of the speedy repartee helps them clarify their own lives.

This first 20-minute act is blissful, especially if you happened to remember pining in high school for a forthright, fast-thinking boy or girl like this and never finding him or her. From there, the two muddled kids return to their daily routines — his quirky diner cohort, her hilariously hyper-cool older boyfriend (Animal Kingdom's James Frecheville) — and the dance of call me maybe, meet cute or not so cute escalates. There's little that "happens" that didn't also happen in the John Hughes oeuvre a quarter-century ago, but the observations and rhythms feel pubertal fresh, and the barbed flirting is all exploratory. In fact, the movie's undulating flow of gentle, loving sarcasm and the entertaining shiver it gives these characters squares it firmly in the tradition of old-school screwball romances, the kind at which Irene Dunne and Cary Grant used to be dab hands.

The First Time's small world can seem claustrophobically wealthy, and there are acres of family and context we never see. Kasdan rarely takes his camera off his leads, who are so puppy-cute that you'd want to pay to rub their adorable scruffs. Neither Robertson nor O'Brien wait for their audience to catch up with their babbling-brook readings, but the heightened level of their repartee also illuminates Kasdan's agenda, which is to subvert the familiar scenario in ways even the characters don't expect. Nothing goes according to any archetypal plan, including the eponymous nooky, and both of the kids are haunted by the thought of being all too similar to their dumb and/or heartless contemporaries. Kasdan does romance right — when either Aubrey or Dave hear or say something that's as new to them as the sex they'll eventually have, they slow down warily, as if at a busy traffic crossing.

Maybe I was a little dazzled by how Kasdan shot his people through with ticcy imperfections without making them plot points. (Robertson's idiosyncratic blonde can be unpredictably testy and cruel.) But in the context of most recent Hollywood films, you can't blame me. The film also is proudly realistic about teen romance itself — its pointlessness, its dire chances for happiness or survival. Here, pubescent love's only obstacles are itself and pride and the lovers' teenage stupidity. (They talk, but they still don't know much.) Kasdan's L.A. is a high school fantasyland, but nothing is easy or convenient. Watching these two plush toys stumble over themselves and each other on their way to their own inevitable adult disappointments can be poignant, and if you ever wished you were there, it's invigorating, too.

 
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