The title of this romantic drama is slightly misleading, because the story depicts a relationship between two college students who have prior sexual experience. The nuance, therefore, is that the story dramatizes the first time the boy in this particular boy-meets-girl equation experiences true love. Yet even that doesn’t fully capture the tone of the picture, since the other major element of the story is the girl’s capriciousness, which stems from her simultaneous involvement with a man her father’s age. And while the picture is generally intelligent and serious, First Love still feels insubstantial. Even though the movie is acted with great sincerity and directed with a certain measure of elegance, everything just sort of happens, without any real sense of consequence.
The hero of the piece is Elgin Smith (William Katt), an earnest and sweet young man who seems distracted from his coursework and from his part-time restaurant job because he’s preoccupied with practicing soccer moves and reading romantic books. His next-door neighbor, David (John Heard), is a swinger whose on-again/off-again girlfriend, Shelly (Beverly D’Angelo), wants to sleep with Elgin. Alas, Elgin is waiting for the real thing, having been underwhelmed by past sexual involvements. Enter Caroline (Susan Dey), with whom Elgin falls in love at first sight. Despite being aware that she’s involved with an older man, John (Robert Loggia), Elgin successfully woos Caroline, and they become a couple. Then, after an idyllic period of sex, sex, and more sex, Caroline reveals her demons, which threaten the relationship.
Considering that First Love is an intimate character piece—and that it was based on a novel (Harold Brodkey’s Sentimental Education)—it’s surprising how indistinct the characterizations seem. Elgin waffles between naïve and worldly, changing whichever way the narrative wind blows, and Caroline teeters between self-centered and tormented. None of this feels like delicate articulation of prismatic individuals; rather, it feels like the filmmakers grabbing whichever element seems handy from scene to scene. Still, First Love is pleasant enough to watch. Directed by Joan Darling, a sitcom veteran making her feature debut (unusual for a woman in ’70s Hollywood), the picture has a glossy look right out of a Renaissance painting, and the acting is better than the material deserves, especially by supporting players D’Angelo and Heard. Plus, for those who enjoy a grown-up approach to onscreen sexuality, the love scenes are lengthy and mildly sensual. The picture also includes a very ’70s post-coital chat between Elgin and Caroline about female orgasms.
First Love: FUNKY