FIRST GIRL I LOVED, US, 2016. Starring Dylan Gelula, Brianna Hildebrand, Mateo Arias, Pamela Adlon, Tim Heidecker. Directed by Keren Sanga. 90 minutes. Rated M (Mature themes, sex and coarse language).
First Girl I Loved is a serious reminder of how themes of sexual identity and orientation have changed since the reticence of half a century ago, the late 1960s, and now with contemporary films.
This is a significant film for and about 18-year-old girls as well is their parents and for those who are apprehensive about facing issues of sexual identity, the psychological, emotional as well is ethical repercussions.
It is surprising that this film has been written and directed by a man, Kerem Sanga, who also wrote and directed a film about teenage pregnancy, The Young Kieslowski. First Girl I Loved seems very much a female film, in the characterisations, in the dialogue between the two girls, even to their chatter and mannerisms, and alertness to female sensibility.
The central character is Anne, Dylan Gelula, a strong-minded 18-year-old who, nevertheless, is revealed as very confused. In the opening scenes we see her photographing a young woman, Sasha, Brianna Hildebrand, a softball champion and we realise the attraction. However, the next sequence shows a young Hispanic student, Cliff, at home with his grandmother, receiving a phone call from Anne to come and look at her new bike. They are best friends, confidantes, talking over all the issues but with Anne hesitant about the key factor in her life – although we realise, as the film goes on, that Cliff has a presupposition about his sexual relationship with Anne.
On the pretext of doing an interview for the school magazine, Anne visits Sasha, ask her awkward questions, but the two get on well and do a great deal of texting, especially about teenage sexual satisfaction, as well as meeting, going to a clothing shop, sharing experiences.
When Anne’s bike is stolen, she has a clash with Cliff whom she suspects and is violent towards him, suspended from school, to the shock of her disabled mother who react badly and slaps her daughter, instantly regretting it. Which means that Anne asks Sasha whether she can have a sleepover at her house. It is then that the complications arise, especially when they sneak out at night to go to a club, dance and kiss, are photographed by an onlooker, a photo which causes deep problems.
Anne becomes more and more confused, remembering an encounter with the young man who took the photo, succumbing to Cliff’s requests but then declaring herself to him, to his bewilderment.
When the photo is published, Sasha’s parents are highly indignant, there is a school meeting with Anne’s mother and Sasha’s parents, with the school counsellor who has listened to Cliff’s story, with Sasha and her hesitation in telling the truth.
Finally, Anne gets a sympathetic ear, declares her orientation and is prepared to move forward in her life.
The value of the film is in its insightful depiction of the characters and their problems, the uncertainties of this age, expectations of them, sexual developments and sometimes inability to deal with these, especially in a society where there do not seem to be any norms and helpful moral compasses.
Mushroom Released June 29th
Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.