*This review was originally published as part of our 2021 Sundance Film Festival coverage. First Date opens in theaters and Apple TV on July 2nd.*
Just think, if you were a shy kid who managed to score a night out with the girl you’ve been crushing on for years. And just when it’s time for the big date, your parents take the car so you’ve got no ride. You end up in an embarrassing hooptie, the cops find you suspicious as Hell, and a crew of chatty criminals suddenly take too much of an interest in you. All of these things conspire to keep you away from your lady love. Such is the premise behind First Date, one of those “crazy night out” teen comedies owing itself to dozens of similar films that have hit up Sundance. And while it may follow in their footsteps, it fails to establish the humor or the detailed touches to accomplish much else.
A pair of newcomers lead the charge in First Date, but only one leaves you with much of an impression. Tyson Brown plays Mike, a shy, quiet kid who has to be convinced by his friend Brett (Josh Fesler) to call his lifelong crush, Kelsey (a fantastic debuting Shelby Duclos), and ask her out on a date. He’s facing stiff competition from the classically hunky dude next door, but somehow Mike’s gamble pays off when she asks him out, hoping to rekindle a friendship they had lost in high school. Unfortunately, Mike just realized that he doesn’t have a car, so Brett hooks him up with a guy selling one for cheap.
Dennis, the guy Mike is buying from is about as shady as it gets. He pulls a fast one and convinces Mike to buy a different car than the advertised one: a beat-up 1960s Chrysler that no self-respecting woman would ever get into. But Kelsey actually turns out to be the least of his worries. She already loves old-school shit like VHS tapes and 8-tracks. The biggest concern is the drugs and jewels hidden in the vehicle and the series of rolling disasters caused by colorful characters that hinder his getting anywhere near Kelsey.
First Date is one of those teenie-bopper “quest” movies where the lead character gets side-tracked from his chosen goal, which is typically to get laid or something. At least here, Mike’s motivation is considerably more innocent. He and Kelsey were friends when they were young, and he’s been harboring a crush ever since. But the cast of loons that populate Mike’s little world are phony as Hell, the kind of manufactured quirkiness that might work in a 2-minute sketch, but not in a feature-length movie. The surprisingly violent criminals pursuing Mike are also in a book club, and their pointless conversations steer towards discussions on John Steinbeck.
Mike is the least compelling character of all. As played by Brown, Mike is so close-mouthed and timid that he barely registers. I guess this is their way of showing that he’s a nice guy, but he just comes across as boring. We spend the bulk of the film wondering why Kelsey would have any interest in him at all. He spends much of the film looking appalled or dumbfounded, when he’s not calling Kelsey to make excuses for being late. This isn’t all Brown’s fault. The screenplay by first-time writers/directors Manuel Crosby and Darren Knapp fail to give Mike any of the little touches that would make this hero’s journey relatable. On the flip side, Shelby Duclos is a real find as Kelsey, imbuing what could’ve been a stock “dreamgirl” part with humanity, maturity, and wisdom that leads to some of the film’s few genuine laughs. Other performances are borderline unwatchable and definitely amateurish.
There might’ve been real chemistry between Mike and Kelsey, too. The few minutes we get to see of them it certainly appears that something could click. But First Date doesn’t show much interest in that, even though getting them together is supposed to be the entire point.
For the most part, movies like First Date are my jam. They remind me of misadventures from my youth, and I enjoy the walk down memory lane that tends to follow. First Date just left me with the desire to move on and hope the second date works out better.