There are two audacious scenes in Jon Kasdan’s high-school romantic comedy The First Time: one at the start, and one toward the end. The latter works phenomenally well, while the former gets the movie off to such a rough start that The First Time initially seems unlikely to recover. The first scene takes place in an alley outside a wild teenage party, and introduces Dylan O’Brien as a nice-looking smart kid pining for his platonic female buddy, and Britt Robertson as an artsy alterna-chick with a rocker boyfriend. O’Brien and Robertson meet and get to know each other over the course of a 15-minute conversation—the length is an example of Kasdan’s boldness—and then over the next 72 hours, they keep meeting, and keep talking, and start falling for each other. Kasdan is trying to make a teen romance where the characters are multi-dimensional, and have an attraction based on conversation, just as it happens in real life. The problem is that the actors look and act like professional young thespians, not ordinary kids. Even their dialogue is a studied kind of casual. This is a common problem with some indie films: They’re torn between wanting to be bold and unconventional, and wanting to entertain audiences by giving them dialogue and characters that feel familiar. They presume to tell a story with the flavor of real life, but can’t shake off the Hollywood artificiality.
But The First Time keeps plugging away, and is ultimately surprisingly winning. That’s partly because the characters are going through what the movie is going through: They’re all torn between putting on a front and getting real. And even if Kasdan never intended The First Time’s initial awkwardness as some kind of meta comment, the movie does get better as it goes along, especially once O’Brien and Robertson move past the halting getting-to-know-you phase and reveal more of their personalities, ambitions, and family issues. The film’s improvements culminate in the titular scene, which is one of the funniest, tensest, and most honest sex scenes ever to appear in a movie like this. Would The First Time be better if Robertson’s boyfriend weren’t such an obvious dope, or if O’Brien didn’t have a hulking African-American pal who only speaks when he has something wise to impart? Absolutely. But there’s still a lot of actual truth lurking behind the Hollywood version of truth. In the first 15 minutes, viewers may be rolling their eyes at these kids; by the end, they might be eager to re-watch that opening scene, to get to know them all over again.