FIRST GIRL I LOVED

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Kerem Sanga

Stars: Dylan Gelula, Brianna Hildebrand, Mateo Arias, Pamela Adlon, Tim Heidecker, Cameron Esposito, Jennifer Prediger, Ana Dela Cruz, Erik Griffin.

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The pain of first love is explored in this low key coming of age drama which was one of the breakout hits of the Sundance Film Festival.

Anne Smith (Dylan Gelula, from Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, etc) is a 17-year old high school student who lives at home with her single mother (Pamela Adlon, from Better Things, etc), a therapist. She works as a photographer for the school newspaper and magazine year book. She develops a crush on Sasha Basanez (Brianna Hildebrand, from Deadpool), the star of the school’s softball team and the most popular girl in school. Anne uses the excuse of writing a profile on Sasha for the school newsletter as a way to get close to her. Can she be sure that Sasha feels the same way towards her?

A brief flirtation results in the two girls spending a night together at Sasha’s house. They sneak out and head off to a bar, where they end up dancing together and kissing, which leaves Sasha feeling a little confused. The nature of their relationship seems a little unclear to both. Also caught up in the mix is Anne’s friend Clifton (Mateo Arias, from Kickin’ It, etc), who also has romantic designs on Anne. There is a simmering sexual tension between the pair. But when Anne confesses to Clifton about her crush on Sasha he grows jealous and tries to sabotage the burgeoning relationship. But then Sasha has second thoughts, which leads to an ugly and heated confrontation that reveal a lot about society expectations and prejudices.

This low budget independently produced exploration of the world of teen sexuality and identity, teen angst, the pains of young love, the awkwardness, heartbreak of first crushes, the fear of judgement, homophobia, and the mistakes adolescents make while negotiating this fraught emotional territory. The emotional subject matter seems so authentic that it could have come from personal experience.

Writer and director Kerem Sanga (The Young Kieslowski, etc) has worked in high schools and has gained plenty of insight into the way young people talk and act. His film explores the experiences of growing up and falling in love and also the difficulties of coming out at high school. First Girl I Loved is a well-intentioned gay-themed romance that has broader appeal than the art house lesbian romance Blue Is The Warmer Colour. There is a lack of gratuitous nudity in the tastefully handled sex scenes and Sanga avoids any hint of exploitation.

Ricardo Diaz’s sun dappled and warm cinematography captures the warmth and laid-back ambience of the film’s LA setting, although Sanga resists using the city’s more obvious landmarks as a backdrop. And John Swihart’s musical compositions underscore the tender nature of the relationship between the two girls.

Sanga handles the simple but melodramatic narrative with sensitivity and compassion and rare insight. The narrative unfolds with parallel timeframes and a lot of flashback sequences that put events into perspective. But the structure itself is a little awkward and seems disjointed at times as Sanga jumps around in time. He slowly teases out intimate details about the characters, but the elliptical narrative structure and uneven pacing becomes a little frustrating.

The two leads are strong and deliver natural performances. Gelula is convincing as a confused and sexually naïve teenager and delivers a strong performance. Hildebrand has a more complex emotional arc here, and is by turns vulnerable, naïve and warm.

★★☆

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