Better call out the symbol police. And tell them to bring heavy weapons. Jesse Peretz's First Love, Last Rites, a tale of young love and early disillusionment set in the overheated Louisiana bayou country, features an unseen rat gnawing away, all movie long, at the woodwork of a one-room house perched on stilts, as well as a couple of gooey dream sequences involving eels. Not even those nodding off in the last row of the stadium seating will need an interpreter: When Anxiety and Lust stop by the multiplex, they're not hard to spot.
Director Peretz, who is twenty-something and has thirty music videos and four short films (including one called Urine Trouble) to his credit, never hestitates when it comes to expressing internal states via outward signs, as if he were the next Ingmar Bergman. Joey (Giovanni Ribisi) and Sissel (Natasha Gregson Wagner), the teenage lovers of the piece, are deeply into sexual freedom and supposedly tormented by various traumas, personal and familial, but they almost never say or do anything coherent about them. Instead, the physical world around them revolts: The sultry heat grows more unbearable; an unnameable something scratches at a window in the night; a horrible stench creeps into their bed.
And yet it's just as well that these protagonists sometimes lose their voices. Said simply, she's a whiner and he's a thick-headed naif; together they may be the least appealing couple in recent moviedom. The fourth time they shed their clothes and fall into the rack is just about the limit: You want to send the two of them off to Marine boot camp for a couple of years, especially when Joey tells his lady love, "You're fuckin' loopy sometimes, you know that?" Ever heard a teenager call another one "loopy"?
Alas, Peretz and his screenwriter, David Ryan, press further on into Symboldom, where the water in the bay always runs blood-red in the mind's eye of the principals and the disturbed girl silently expresses herself by boiling her 45 rpm records in saucepots on the stove. To what degree do such devices derive from Peretz and Ryan's former lives as members of the alt-rock band the Lemonheads? Who knows? But they've certainly managed to mangle the sexual mystery and tense anticipation that powered the short story from which this movie was adapted. It was written by British author Ian McEwan and set in a depressing English fishing town. It hasn't traveled very well to the American South.
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After viewing First Love, you, too, may have a couple of questions. One: Why is an eighteen-year-old boy from Brooklyn, of all places, "on vacation," by himself, in rural Louisiana? Two: How is it that the girl, whose parents have recently separated, is allowed by her stern, militaristic father (Robert John Burke) and her unhappy mother (Jeanetta Arnette) to copulate her days away with a stranger in a beach house, in the manner of Last Tango in Paris? Three: How did the lovers meet, and which of the unemployed teenagers is paying the rent? Four: Is any eighteen-year-old, even one from Brooklyn, so dense as to believe he'll make his fortune trapping eels on the bayou?
These are meaningless details, we are left to suppose, amid the joys and sorrows of first love, the rise and fall of carnal bliss, and the tide of signs and emblems that constitute the bulk of this dull and pretentious piece of business. It is worth noting, however, that Epic Records has financed the soundtrack, which features some of the former Lemonheads' old buddies--Billy Corgan, Liz Phair, Robin Zander (of Cheap Trick), and Nathan Larson and Craig Wedren (of Shudder to Think). Those looking for an ulterior motive for making the movie in the first place can find it right there.
First Love, Last Rites.
Directed by Jesse Peretz. Written by David Ryan, from a short story by Ian McEwan. Starring Natasha Gregson Wagner, Giovanni Ribisi and Robert John Burke.