Sundance 2012: With 'First Time,' the CW comes to Utah
Figures from the television world pop up routinely in Sundance films. But it's rare for a movie to come into the festival with as deep a television pedigree as "The First Time," let alone a pedigree from youth-oriented television.
Nickelodeon, MTV and the CW are all well-represented in the film, a gentle romance that stars Britt Robertson (The CW's "Life Unexpected" and "The Secret Circle"), Dylan O'Brien (MTV's "Teen Wolf") and, in a supporting turn, Victoria Justice (Nickelodeon's "Victorious")
Meanwhile, director Jonathan Kasdan (son of director Lawrence and brother of director Jake) has the ultimate young-adult programming pedigree: he wrote on both "Freaks & Geeks" and "Dawson's Creek."
Photos: The scene at Sundance 2012
A movie that's as much about the expectations teens have about love as the appetite they have for sex, "First Time" centers on a budding relationship between high school senior Dave (O'Brien) and junior Aubrey (Robertson), who meet while standing on the margins of a teenage house party.
Dave is pining for the pretty, popular girl (Justice), while Aubrey's romantic idealism isn't being fulfilled by her older slacker boyfriend. Dave and Aubrey clearly have chemistry, but dance around each other with requisite teenage uncertainty (though not, it should be said, inarticulateness; both are eloquent beyond their years). Eventually, they fall for one another as the film builds up to well, their first time.
Kasdan, who's going for a kind of emotional believability not often attempted in high school romances, demands more of the actors than a typical CW show--long, dialogue-heavy scenes between the two leads are common. One standout is the opening, an approximately 10-minute number in which the two volley dialogue back and forth as though in a stage play. It's not exactly Noel Coward, but it's more than is required of, say, the actors on "Pretty Little Liars."
"Coming from television . . . the process of rehearsing and developing the characters [was] amazing," O'Brien said. "This experience is different from any experience I've had," added the actor, who is making his first major film appearance.
A handful of stars have successfully made the transition from the small to the big screen -- Michelle Williams, Blake Lively and Shia LaBeouf, to name a few. But the shift is challenging for many young TV stars, with most teen soaps and comedies not exactly helping actors forge a diverse skill set. And even those who do it successfully can take a long time getting there; witness Williams' turns in gems like "Halloween: H20" before she became an Oscar contender.
The trio of "First Time" actors--all between the ages of 18 and 21--showed a little of their inexperience when they came on stage after the screening. Justice, who no doubt has done her fair share of press as a Nick star, was the most animated, cheerily recounting anecdotes from the set. But Robertson and O'Brien appeared less comfortable, rolling on the balls of their feet and passing off the microphone to other cast members on a few occasions instead of answering questions themselves.
"First Time" is seeking a U.S. buyer, and though the comedy isn't broad enough to merit a studio acquisition--"American Pie" this ain't--the movie's charm could be enough to land it a midsize deal and release.
Many teenage tales fall into either teen cliche or, at the other end of the spectrum, unconvincing adult dialogue. Kasdan said he strove to find a balance between articulateness and authenticity.
"The kids on 'Freaks and Geeks' were so awkward and never said the right thing," he said, referring to one of his past gigs. "And the kids on 'Dawson's' were so cool and always said the right thing. My experience of high school was somewhere in between, and ever since I've been trying to forge a voice between the two."
Kasdan wasn't shy about turning his own pain into comedy. With a stand-up comedian's self-deprecating humor, he said before the screening that when he was in high school he would "stay up writing [scripts], fantasizing that if I could write something eloquent or funny or true maybe the girl I was waiting for would read it and come find me, and then have sex with me."
--Steven Zeitchik and Amy Kaufman in Park City, Utah
Photo: Victoria Justice and Dylan O'Brien in "The First Time." Credit: Sundance Film Festival