January 31, 2021

SHOWBUZZDAILY Virtual Sundance Reviews: “First Date” & “Pleasure”


FIRST DATE:  Your regard for First Date is likely to directly relate to your nostalgia for the low-rent action comedies and Tarantino imitations of the 1990s and 2000s.  Those comedies were marked by idiot plots that piled on coincidences to justify rampant bloodshed, while no pseudo-Tarantino script would be complete without garrulous gangsters monologuing about petty complaints and pop culture (National Treasure and Of Mice and Men get namechecked here) while waving weapons around, and at least one scene where a group of them point guns at each other.  All of that is present in Manuel Crosby and Darren Knapp’s First Date, which adds a YA sensibility to their tale by setting off its chain of events when shy Mike (Tyson Brown) finally asks Kelsey (Shelby Duclos) out.  She shocks him by saying yes, and he finds himself unexpectedly in need of a car.  When he acquires a monstrously old, large and decrepit Chrysler New Yorker, it turns out to come with a whole lot of baggage.  Crosby and Knapp have plenty of energy, and both the leads and some of the supporting cast are appealing (particularly funny is Scott E. Noble as Dennis), but the structure of this thing quickly becomes repetitive as Mike lurches through one increasingly dangerous pickle after another, each with a group of baddies running off at the mouth.  It also doesn’t help that the one thing the filmmakers didn’t have was a budget, which means that the action sequences can’t escalate beyond a certain point, and either due to lack of resources or imagination, none of them are shot with any particular distinction.  One of the fetishized 1990s objects in First Date is a VHS player and tapes to play in it, and no doubt the film itself is meant to be a nod to the kind of movies that used to be rented for just such a pre-HD machine.  But sometimes a homage is just a rerun, and those who miss the real thing can find plenty of it on Netflix.

PLEASURE:  The mostly matter-of-fact depiction of life in the porn industry conveyed by the Swedish director Ninja Thyberg’s film is unusual and disconcerting, in some ways as much as the extremely explicit imagery.  Thyberg (who wrote with Peter Modestij) wants it to be clear that this is a business, and while the power dynamics depicted here obviously go far beyond their expression in other industries, they’re not completely different either.  Thyberg’s avatar for her story is a young woman we will mostly know as Bella (first-time actress Sofia Kappel), the name she adopts when she comes to Los Angeles from Sweden, determined to find stardom in porn.  Bella signs with an adult agent and moves into a “model house” with other performers, but her ambitions are much fiercer than her roommates’.  That leads her into accepting some of the most intense assignments, and Pleasure is disturbingly clear about the industry’s rules of consent and the inherent limitations of such rules, and how they lead to abuse in that world.  Part of the reason the film is so convincing is that aside from Kappel, the cast is almost entirely made up of people who actually work in porn, as is some of the crew, and the verisimilitude is probably unprecedented.  Thyberg’s decision to keep Bella’s own motivations mostly opaque holds us at something of a distance from the character, as must have been intended, but Kappel bridges that with the strong feeling of emotional reality she brings to the role.  Pleasure is of course not going to be for all audiences, and many will find it alienating and offensive.  It deserves credit, though, for sheer fearlessness.



About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."