The typical heart-pounding anxiety of budding young romance is cranked to the max in First Date, a crime-riddled rom-com that throws two teens on the titular outing into hot water but can’t quite keep its pot of stylish influences from boiling over. Despite clearly aiming to craft an intentional aesthetic, writer/director duo Manuel Crosby and Darren Knapp’s film is inundated with tributes to irreverent indie crime film staples without bothering to carve out a unique voice of its own.
When his parents leave for a weekend vacation, quiet teenager Mike (Tyson Brown) feels thwarted instead of elated at the prospect of being left home alone. With his parents taking the only family vehicle, he’s now left without a way to pick up his girl-next-door crush Kelsey (Shelby Duclos) for their very first date, planned for that evening. Desperate to pull through, Mike is talked into buying an overpriced, dilapidated ‘65 Chrysler from a local petty criminal named Dennis (Scott Noble). After an inopportune traffic stop conducted by coldly intimidating cops Sergeant Davis (Nicole Berry) and Deputy Duchovny (Samuel Ademola), Mike realizes that Dennis sold him the car without removing some of his shady valuables from it. When he returns to Dennis’ house, he finds the place empty and ransacked—and that whoever came looking for Dennis might try to find him next.
The film imbues a sense of nostalgia through the incorporation of ‘90s media relics, present in both Mike’s weathered VHS collection (complete with The Lost Boys, T2 and the mammoth Titanic two-tape set) and Kelsey’s antique 8-track player, which produces sonic streams of ‘60s surf rock. Yet, what could have been an original amalgamation of zoomer sentimentality for an era they never knew is instead much more concerned with eliciting constant callbacks to period genre-definers, namely Tarantino and the Coen Brothers. Particularly with the emergence of a dangerous yet inept crime syndicate that’s expletive-laced dialogue is often tinged with grating sarcasm, First Date is starkly relegated to the realm of tawdry imitation as opposed to imaginative satire. The characterization of the gang—who have their book club meeting on Of Mice and Men interrupted to hunt down Mike—is somewhere between Reservoir Dogs and Fargo, only without the distinction of ever attempting to explore any individual member’s interiority. Even the film’s surf rock soundtrack is an obvious homage to Tarantino; while it serves a saccharine soundscape, it can’t help but feel tactlessly lifted.
Even in the case of characters that feel somewhat more personal to Crosby and Knapp, there is a disappointing lack of depth that keeps viewers estranged from any emotional payoff. Save for their coincidental shared affinity for analog technology, Mike and Kelsey have surprisingly little in common. Mike is a reserved, straight-laced kid with overbearing yet lenient parents (“There’s condoms upstairs on your dad’s bedside table!”), while Kelsey is an athletic smart-ass living in an abusive household. Aside from the evidence of their teenage loins being generally on fire, First Date never allows the couple to share anything outside of their bullet-streaked night together. Not only that, but the film hardly even lets the characters understand anything interesting about themselves. Mike’s meekness routinely serves as an arbitrary trait that allows situations to get wildly out of hand due to his inability to speak up, while Kelsey’s kickboxing chops predictably save their asses.
Set in these limiting roles of rigidly passive or active, Mike and Kelsey’s romance isn’t conjured into existence through calculated chemistry, but rather sheer sluggish insistence on the filmmakers’ part. Therefore, it would be unfair to attribute the flatness of the characters to the actors who portray them. Brown and Duclos do their best to enhance portrayals that were never given proper direction in the first place: Brown’s dreamy introvertedness could have made for an adorably nuanced protagonist within a more substantial script, while Duclos’ quick delivery and subtle performance of Kelsey’s ability to smile through the pain raises the stakes for her character considerably. Where the cast truly flounder is in the ability to adequately convey lines that are corny to their core—an understandably impossible task.
Overall, First Date’s insistence on lingering in the hazy aftermath of formative ‘90s indie crime flicks is what hinders it from becoming an appealing teenage romance of a gunshot at love gone wrong. Though breakout performances from leads Brown and Duclos add a convincing layer of chemistry (with a shared steamy kiss to boot), lackluster writing keeps the characters confined within inflexible boxes. There is promise for Crosby and Knapp to turn their careful curatorial eye toward capturing an essence of the ‘90s filmmakers which they so admire, but their biggest obstacle lies in bringing something new to the table.
Directors: Manuel Crosby, Darren Knapp
Writer: Manuel Crosby, Darren Knapp
Stars: Tyson Brown, Shelby Duclos, Jesse Janzen, Nicole Berry, Samuel Ademola, Ryan Quinn Adams, Angela Barber, Scott Noble
Release Date: July 2, 2021 (Magnet Releasing)
Natalia Keogan is a freelance film writer based in Queens, New York. Her work has been featured in Paste Magazine, Blood Knife Magazine and Filmmaker Magazine, among others. Find her on Twitter @nataliakeogan