“Robot and Frank” and “The First Time” gently tweak genre expectations while remaining firmly mainstream-friendly
Saturday's substantial snowfall may have slown down the Park City shuttle buses that take Sundance audiences from screening to screening, but the film festival kept on keeping on, with two afternoon world premieres that — like previous Sundance hits "Little Miss Sunshine" and "The Kids Are All Right" — tweak genre conventions while still remaining exceedingly audience-friendly.
Frank Langella gives another compelling performance in "Robot and Frank," a movie that often felt like a cross between "Driving Miss Daisy" and the senior-citizens-rob-a-bank comedy "Going in Style," with a science-fiction twist.
Set in the near future (you can tell because the adults all have names like "Hunter" and "Madison"), the film sees the elderly Frank (Langella), who's fighting off dementia, being left in the care of a nurse robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) provided to Frank by his estranged son (James Marsden). We come to realize that Frank used to be a cat burglar, and since the robot hasn't been programmed with a moral compass, Frank teaches him how to pick locks and to be the perfect criminal sidekick.
The pensioner's health blossoms now that he has a new project to tackle, but what if he gets caught? What if his hippy-dippie, anti-robot daughter (Liv Tyler) moves back in to take care of him? And what about Frank's romance with the sexy local librarian (Susan Sarandon)?
"Robot and Frank" often winds up being the sum of its gimmick, but this talented cast (assembled by first-time director Jake Schreier) makes the movie loads of fun. Screenwriter Christopher D. Ford, also making his debut, even tosses in a few surprising third-act twists, and when's the last time you didn't see one of those coming?
The dialogue of teen rom-com "The First Time" winds up being one of the film's big flaws, but the cast and storytelling is so charming that you forgive the fact that almost all of the characters talk like screenwriters. (In this case, Jonathan Kasdan, who also directed.)
Kasdan's TV credits include "Dawson's Creek" and "Freaks and Geeks," but you'd never guess it from the quippy, artificial banter that takes up so much of this often-delightful story about two high schoolers who meet, fall hard, and have sex over the course of one weekend. The sex part, of course, winds up complicating matters more than they ever could have expected, and the two have to figure out if they have a future together after that first awkward naked encounter.
It's hard not to be won over by "The First Time," though, since TV vets Britt Robertson ("The Secret Circle") and Dylan O'Brien ("Teen Wolf") are so utterly charming. Robertson, in particular, brings a brainy-pixie vibe that reminded me of the late, great Adrienne Shelley in those early Hal Hartley movies.
As for O'Brien, he's certainly charismatic, but he's tough to buy as the nerdy sensitive-guy (who another character actually calls "average-looking") when he could clearly be an underwear model. Nonetheless, the two actors click as slightly-eccentric adolescents who feel like real people, even if they don't always talk like them.
Still, even if Kasdan bobbles the dialogue, he gets a lot of high school life just right, from messy keggers to Saturday night at the multiplex to the difference between calling a girl on her cell versus calling her parents' number. Teenagers are probably likely to be way more forgiving of the beyond-their-years sophistication of the witty chat, and they might even make "The First Time" a hit.