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Sundance 2012 Day 4: Sex, drugs, and teens

Posted by Ty Burr  January 22, 2012 04:28 PM

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firsttime.jpgHow do you make a John Hughes-style teen rom-com in the new millennium? Judging by Jonathan Kasdan's "The First Time," with a self-consciousness that's sometimes painful and very occasionally true to the characters. Dylan O'Brien and Britt Robertson are the two suburban high schoolers who meet at a wild party and spend the next 48 hours falling in chatty, awkward love -- he's a reedy nice guy with the requisite eccentric friends (one a snide Brit, the other a giant silent African American), she's a winsome alt-girl with a middle-aged screenwriter's taste in music. (As in: Leonard Cohen. On vinyl.) The performances by the leads are earnest and very sweet, and Kasdan knows his Hughes ready-mades: The "older guy" boyfriend of Robertson's character is a ringer for Michael Schoeffling of "16 Candles."

So why did I feel like the movie kept checking itself in the mirror like a 14-year-old girl searching for acne? Why was I constantly waiting (in vain, but not really) for O'Brien to show up on Robertson's lawn with a boombox? The only scenes in "The First Time" that feel freshly observed have to do with the couple's first sexual experience, and the only shot in the whole movie that actually felt real was one of Robertson looking out her bathroom door at O'Brien waiting on the edge of her bed and letting out a nervous little laugh. Some people love the movie, but there were also a lot of walk-outs at the screening, mostly, it seemed, from middle-aged men who may not want their precious pop memories tampered with. I kept wondering what my own teenage daughters, who certainly know their Hughes and can quickly sense when a movie's bullshitting them and when it's not, would make of it. They might think, like me, that the artificiality is sometimes teeth-grinding but worth wading through for the stray pieces that feel true.

The documentaries at Sundance, by contrast, tend to know what they want and get it done with less fuss. "The House I Live In" is a lucid, long-view unpacking of the War on Drugs from Eugene Jarecki, who ably dissected the lead-up to the Iraq War in "Why We Fight." The movie marshals a wide selection of talking heads, from Oklahoma prison guards and Reagan-era appointees to street dealers and Jarecki's own nanny, who lost her son to drugs and now regrets working for her white employers at the expense of her own family.

The film's short-term view is that mandated minimum-sentencing requirements have led to an incarceration system that is now an economic juggernaut of its own. The larger point -- and "The House I live In" renders it well nigh bulletproof -- is that America has used fear of drugs to regularly target, isolate, and lock up various fringe populations that threaten the mainstream labor market: the Chinese with opium, Mexicans with marijuana, African-Americans with heroin and crack cocaine, and laid-off rural whites with methamphetamine.

Jarecki doesn't minimize the real damage that drug use inflicts on individuals, families, and communities, but he forcefully concludes that the so-called cure has had far more damaging effects on our society. The film leaves the possibility for change up to us rather than our governmental officials, who regularly have to talk "tough on crime" to win elections. I'd hate to imply that it's your civic duty to see "The House I Live In" when it's eventually released to theaters, but guess what -- it is.

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Ty Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.

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