'First Date': Teen Coming-Of-Age Careens Into A Bloody Mess In This Errant Joy Ride [Sundance Review]

For most teens, the scariest hurdle they’ll face is asking their crush out on a first date. But on this night, for the bashful Mike (Tyson Brown), preparing for his first outing with the headstrong Kelsey (Shelby Duclos), courting is the least of his issues. After he buys a ramshackle car from a suspicious salesman, one with a darker history than he could ever guess, his life comes into jeopardy. Over a single night that’ll check and charge his courage, Mike must face down teen jitters, criminals, and leering cops in a bid to save his love. Manuel Crosby and Darren Knapp’s directorial debut feature, “First Date,” is a riotous ever-shifting tonal party that while charming in its ambition, ultimately loses its humble core for less than successful rougher edges.   

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Crosby and Knapp’s dark comedy is strongest in its sparse yet amusing opening. A shy Mike stumbles to call Kelsey for a simple date. Mike and his best bud Brett, a nosy horndog white guy who chides Mike for not “showing some balls,” share an uneven friendship. It’s clear as Brett bullies his friend into snatching his parents’ money that Mike needs to show more gumption around his pal. In some sense, “First Date” is about Mike building his confidence. And when Crosby and Knapp remain on that track, the comedy hurdles toward its most wonderful bits.

When the film slaps from its laid back vibes—which includes references to 8-track tapes, “Titanic” VHS references, and low-key shimmering needle drops—to a slap-dash joyride, “First Date” engages another gear. With his parents’ money, Mike finds a sleazy guy selling a death trap of a car, so he might take Kelsey out onto a date. The car features a cracked windshield, roll-down windows, and a tattered finish so rusted over, no one can tell what the make or model is. Mike tries to rumble toward Kelsey’s place before her horny next-door neighbor works his corny game, but along the way bumbles into two benign sheriffs, Davis (Nicole Berry) and Duchovny (Samuel Ademola) who provide a caustic wit to the proceedings.   

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“First Date,” however, devolves from there. A ratty band of incompetent crooks who share a book club, and their sadistic leader, the Captain (Jesse Janzen), enters the fray. For a time they provide outlandish laughs: One guy toting a baseball bat refuses to remove his ski mask, the youngest member of the group and his girlfriend are treated like imbeciles, and two older participants take their weekly book club far more seriously than their criminal activities. They are hunting this car. A vehicle now filled with Mike and a bizarre elderly couple asking for a ride. A messy momentum —barely held together by a charming Tyson Brown—fuels the whole affair. But when Mike finally unites with Kelsey, the film takes a totally wrong turn.  

If you don’t like the tone of “First Date,” wait five minutes, it’ll change. It careens from a California slacker film to a ’90s teen comedy to its final shoot ‘em up grindhouse conclusion. In the blaze of bullets that involves cocaine, guns, and more guns—the chaotic energy that’s coursed through much of “First Date” uncontrollably combusts into mere bloody violence. The charm disappears, the laughs quiet, the lo-fi photography carries less attraction, and the innocent aura that defined much of the action is zapped. There’s a point in this shoot-out, in fact, where Mike and Kelsey totally disappear. Their cares are no longer our concern. Rather the filmmakers draw more attention toward the flying bullets than their two leads. It’s a critical error at the film’s most crucial junction. 

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Though the dark comedy returns to its roots in its final minutes, back to the modest teen romance, the shift lacks impact after the preceding aggressive sequence. Brown and Duclos are undeniable talents. The entire ensemble rolls with the fast punches. And Crosby and Knapp show real comedic potential. But “First Date” takes too many big bites without the ability to digest any of its gummy sweets. Crosby and Knapp’s “First Date,” an at-times hilarious California pleasure trip, dissolves under the weight of its self-evident ambition. [C]

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