First Love, Last Rites
1994, NR, 93 min. Directed by Jesse Peretz. Starring Natasha Gregson Wagner, Giovanni Ribisi, Robert John Burke, Jeannetta Arnette, Donal Logue, Eli Marienthal.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Sept. 11, 1998
Long on mood and short on narrative, First Love, Last Rites does a good job of capturing the sense of young love's first flush and its inevitable erosion. A resolutely independent work, Jesse Peretz's debut feature makes few concessions to the demands of popular entertainment in terms of involving his extremely likable characters in larger narrative actions or external storyline. Based on a short story by Ian McEwan, the film is set in the Louisiana bayou country over the course of one contemporary summer. Joey (Ribisi) and Sissel (Wagner) are hot in the throes of first love. They exult in each other's bodies and make love till their bodies are slack with satiation. They have all the time in the world and no responsibilities. The Brooklyn-bred Joey is down in Louisiana for inexplicable reasons. He has no work or school obligations and neither does Sissel. By day, Joey builds eel traps to help Sissel's father in a half-baked scheme of selling eel to sushi joints. Sissel, who seems to realize before Joey that their love will not last forever, takes a job at the local sugar factory -- mostly out of boredom. There's also Sissel's cantankerous little brother who requires extra attention because of the breakup of his parents' marriage. Oh, and there's a rat in the wall. I mention this only because the killing of the rat is the movie's high drama. It becomes symbolic of the anxieties lurking beneath the surface, much like the undertow that the local fishermen keep warning Joey about. (And let's not even touch the eel symbolism.) Wagner (Two Girls and a Guy) and Ribisi (Saving Private Ryan, subUrbia) are both very engaging. But though their absorption in each other is 100% believable, there are too many other things about their characters that are not: the 45s they listen to, Sissel's stylish bob, Joey's imperceptible source of income. Also adding lots of atmosphere is the swampy bayou location work and the soundtrack by Shudder to Think (High Art and the upcoming Velvet Goldmine). Director Peretz is the former bass player for the Lemonheads and the director of dozens of music videos and commercial spots as well as the “Jimmy McBride, Cab Driver” spots for MTV. More than anything else, First Love, Last Rites succeeds at making inertia palpable. This is dubious distinction for a motion picture.