SUNDANCE LONDON ’21: ‘First Date’ Can’t Quite Decide What It Want To Be – But Does That Really Matter?

Still from First Date. In the foreground is Mike (Tyson Brown), sitting in the front of a car in the driver's seat. His eyes are wide in panic, as he looks out the window at something unknown. 
To his left is a leg sticking up, only the shoe and ankle visible. 
Behind him sits Kelsey (Shelby Duclos), her face is lit up by an outside light and she looks similarly shocked. It is nightime, and the surroundings are pitch black.
Tyson Brown and Shelby Duclos appear in First Date by Manuel Crosby and Darren Knapp, an official selection of the NEXT section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Manuel Crosby.

Remembering your first date – either with a current partner, or perhaps the first time you ever went out with someone – is sure to bring back memories. The awkward crushes of youth, those butterflies in the stomach, bad conversations, these memories are often universal. What most first dates don’t usually involve are dodgy car deals, shootouts, an elderly couple making out in the front seat, and in-depth discussions about the merits and shortcomings of ‘Of Mice and Men’.

First Date, from writer-directors Manuel Crosby and Darren Knapp, manages to hit every one of those points and more, swerving sharply from one genre convention to the next without so much as a glance in the rear-view mirror. When Mike (Tyson Brown) finally asks out Kelsey (Shelby Duclos), the kick-boxing, comeback-ready, girl from school, he is suddenly faced with a problem: no car.

After finding a used car available from the local wise-guy Dennis (Scott E. Noble), he heads out on the long-anticipated date, desperate to make a good first impression with the girl he has fancied from afar. What he doesn’t expect is to find stolen goods in the glove box, or to spend the rest of the night on the run from the police, a motley crew of gangsters with varying degrees of competency, all while trying to prove to Kelsey that he hasn’t stood her up.

First Date isn’t afraid to embrace the ridiculous: what could be a relentlessly grim plot is quickly destroyed the moment that The Captain’s (Jesse Janzen) crew begin arguing loudly about ‘Of Mice and Men’, the chosen novella they are currently reading in their book club. This blending of the serious with surreal is woven throughout the narrative – there are the requisite “kooky” parents offering advice about condoms then disappearing for the rest of the film on a convenient holiday, corrupt cops, murders, an old couple trying to relive their glory days in the local lover’s lane.

As Mike, Nelson manages to capture the enduring awkwardness of a teenage boy – his stuttering, nervous phone call to Kelsey manages to be sweet rather than annoying as he trips over words, head sinking in anticipation of a rejection that never comes, while his friend gesticulates in exasperation in the background. He maintains a wide-eyed, occasionally naive innocence as a night that should be about nervous kisses instead involves shootouts and an extraordinary amount of cocaine.

The refusal of the film to fit neatly, or even coherently, into a recognisable box verges on the edge of irritating, but the sheer entertainment makes it difficult to fault. Constantly keeping the audience guessing, while leaning full tilt into every bit of madness, First Date is a caper easy to enjoy. 

First Date is now showing as part of Sundance London 2021. Further information can be found here

Rose is a film critic , who graduated from the University of Liverpool with an MRes in Film Studies. She loves thrillers, Al Pacino, and multilingual cinema and she’s not entirely sure if she’s a millennial.

Find her on twitter @rosedymock and find more of her work at https://rosedymock.contently.com

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