'First Date' Review: Hijinks Ensue In This Harebrained Crime Thriller [Sundance 2021]

The best thing I can say about First Date, the wacky new crime comedy from writer/directors Manuel Crosby and Darren Knapp, is that it almost never takes its foot off the gas. It opens with a bang (someone gets shot in the first scene), and after a very brief sequence which establishes some of the main characters, it quickly kicks back into high gear. But that fast pace means the film never stays in one place for very long, and your mileage may vary on whether or not all of its detours and destinations are ultimately worthwhile.

The movie, which marks Crosby and Knapp's feature directorial debut as a duo, centers on a quiet kid named Mike (Tyson Brown), who wants nothing more than to take his crush, Kelsey (Shelby Duclos), out on a date. It's a simple set-up with easily identifiable character archetypes: the shy protagonist, the obnoxious best friend who's always quick with a filthy joke (Josh Fesler), the girl next door, and the Gaston-like jock who's also vying for the girl's affections (Brandon Kraus). So far, so good.

After an awkward phone call, Mike ends up scoring a date with Kelsey. There's just one problem: he doesn't have a car, and his parents have taken the family vehicle out on a trip, leaving Mike at home by himself with nothing but his bike. Not wanting to screw up his big chance with Kelsey, Mike takes all of his savings and goes to buy a used car he saw on a Craigslist posting. That's when the movie reveals itself to be one of those stories in which the protagonist is constantly sidetracked while trying to achieve a goal, where the increasing amount of side quests are supposed to be entertaining but often end up just feeling frustrating. I'm not inherently opposed to stories like this – Booksmart is a recent example of a great version of this type of movie – but more often than not in First Date, the side quests feel like annoying distractions instead of meaningful scenes that build character (or at least make me laugh).

That's in large part because of the cast of characters Mike ends up interacting with. After he goes to buy the car from a shady guy named Dennis, who is tapped into the local drug scene, Mike is soon unwittingly entangled in a series of crimes which keep delaying him from making it to his date. At its worst, the movie feels like one of those Tarantino knock-offs that arose in the wake of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, when filmmakers thought all they had to do to make low-level criminals interesting was to have them bicker with each other about pop culture. (This movie's grating group of henchmen argue about the meaning of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men.)

Tyson Brown does good work as Mike, although he feels held back by the limitations of his character. Mike is in one of two modes throughout the whole film – either confused, or wide-eyed surprise at the situations in which he finds himself – and since he's primarily a reactive character, he ends up feeling a little dull. And without getting into specifics about what happens, even the completion of his character arc, which is clearly supposed to feel like a significant step forward for him, falls a little flat.

Shelby Duclos, on the other hand, gives a real star-making performance here. She's easily the breakout actor from this movie, imbuing the Kelsey character with a winning combination of grit and humanity that makes her feel like more than just the idealized love interest. Expect to see her name start popping up on casting short lists; it feels like it's only a matter of time before she makes the jump into a big-budget blockbuster type of production.

When it comes down to it, I didn't hate the movie, but I also didn't think it was very funny – and since comedy is one of the most subjective aspects of any film, there's a big chance you'll get a lot more out of it in that department than I did, and I imagine that would raise your opinion of the film considerably above mine. But since most of the humor didn't work for me, I personally came away wishing the film had more deeply engaged with the ideas it raised along the way about greed, corruption, and leadership. There's a beating heart at the center of First Date, but unfortunately, the movie is less interested in exploring that central relationship and more amused with its zany cast of idiotic supporting characters. Good pacing can only get you so far.

/Film Rating: 6 out of 10