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Most would agree that the teen years are both some of the best and some of the worst in our lives as we try to find our personal identities in a world where being like everyone else is expected. It’s a confusing time of exploration, failure, and emotional growth that helps define us in adulthood. Part of all those years is the development of attraction to someone else, and learning what that means not only to ourselves but those around us, making for some tricky roads to journey upon.
We meet Anne (Dylan Gelula), an intelligent high school senior who already knows she has no interest in boys, at least romantically. Her best friend is Clifton (Mateo Arias), a boy she trusts even if he is a bit immature, as boys that age tend to be. She confesses to Cliff a new fascination for Sasha (Brianna Hildebrand), a popular girl on the softball team who she thinks about often. Naturally, this does not sit well Cliff, who has his own strong feelings for Anne and is crushed by the news. And then some. Meanwhile, Anne, who works for the Yearbook club, arranges an interview with Sasha, and it’s not long before both girls are texting each other and growing close, despite attempts by Cliff to sabotage the relationship.
Written and directed by Kerem Sanga, First Girl I Loved seems by description to be a standard girl-loves-girl-but-boy-gets-in-the-way teen melodrama, and indeed it has the trappings of such, but Sanga wisely treats these complex relationships with less incendiary triggers than most in the genre, keeping this about the characters rather than the theme. Certainly, the film has much to say about the lifestyles depicted and the damaging social norms that perpetuate within the high school microcosm, but it’s more intent on the story of human desire than anything else and for those of us who have already had a first love, it’s a pluck on our nostalgia strings, even if our firsts didn’t arouse as much public attention.
The story is told in a sort of lose collection of connected moments, a non-chronological narrative device like that of 500 Days of Summer (2009). Doing so adds a surprisingly impactful element to the admittedly thin storyline, setting up and delivering scenes that are unexpected. Freed of a linear path, things connect like a scaffold, building a solid story that includes some sweet and tender moments but also some with powerful emotional impact, including a confrontation between Anne and Cliff that is the summation of several seemingly unrelated scenes that is jarringly effective.
The performances of the two leads truly keep the film working though, with Gelula a delight, convincing as Anne, a character that suffers a rise and fall while maintaining an important air of confidence and self-empowerment. Hildebrand is excellent as a young woman aware of her burgeoning sexual feelings and conflicted by the enormous social pressure, let alone her own fragile heart, in which she creates defenses.
Still, while the two are well-cast and their performances are nearly flawless, the film shifts tonally and isn’t consistent in some of its character development. I didn’t quite connect with bits of the humor, especially toward the end, and I would have liked to have seen more growth with the two girls, but there’s no denying the strong sense of honesty in the story. These characters express a genuine sense of place and worth, and when it’s over, that’s truly what makes this so impressive. First Girl I Loved is a good movie with an affecting story I hope sees more treat it likewise. Well worth a look.
Director: Kerem Sanga
Writer: Kerem Sanga
Stars: Brianna Hildebrand, Pamela Adlon, Dylan Gelula
Genre: Romance, Teen