Dare I say First Girl I Loved is a near perfect blend of Andrea Arnold’s Fishtank meets Blue Is The Warmest Color? Dare I say it’s even better? As I lay in my puddle of confused emotions, I confidently shout “yes”, and once you see it I dare you to defy it.
How privileged are we to be living in the best era of romance. No, I do not believe that time came and went with the 1990s. A decade when happy-sad Rom-Com cliches were booming and everyone’s dreamboat couple was Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. Films that were one comic relief child actor away from the nuclear family. Thank you, but I’ll pass on that being my reflection of romance. Speaking for myself, I always gravitate towards honesty. Films like Carol, my darling, that brought new life into LGBT cinema with no semblance of gimmicks or magical cure to their sexuality. I only saw a sincerity for its characters and an honest look at love and the angst and confusion it brings. We are the most sophisticated audience to experience cinema, alongside the most sophisticated filmmakers, and it’s nice to see how far we’ve come to get here.
Kerem Sanga utilises that angst and confusion in First Girl I Loved tremendously. His film, through homosexual lenses, is a personal portrayal of the insecure American youth that fall in and out of love, not based on feeling but fear, where outward perception from peers (even in a blue liberal state like California) challenges who we are attracted to and who we share that revelation with. Anne, played beautifully by Dylan Gelula, is faced with those same trials when she falls for popular fellow student Sasha (Deadpool’s own Brianna Hildebrand), with the possible spoiler to their relationship being Anne’s best friend Clifton, newcomer Mateo Arias.
Sanga portrays these relationship dynamics through the contrast of human interaction, with online interaction, pairing the rapid fluidity of instant messaging and the protective online persona with the vulnerability of one-on-one. These characters, while on occasion unlikable, are more the victims of a society still evolving, with expectations perpetuated by “bro-code guides to pick up girls” and the herd mentality of high-school friend groups. It’s in the online otherworldly space and the sparing scenes our leads Anne and Sasha share alone that the hesitation layers are stripped away, presented through dual narration of their conversations or the divine awkwardness of them just speaking and interacting. Sanga places these characters in a position of unjudged emotional indulgence, allowing his audience a true look at love from the gaze of pressured youth. It’s truly personal and always authentic.
The use of Anne and Clifton is similar, only from a hostile dynamic. You sense characters like this can exist prior to the film and long after the credits roll, and the way Sanga handles that selfish peer-pressure mentality is nuanced. Sanga is unflinching in what he wants to show, whether it’s emotional connection or the realisation of emotional disconnection. Gelula and Arias use their eyes, their trembling body movements, their cracking, purposeful voices to convey every bit of internal struggle. The simple exchange of F-words across the room is far more layered and raw than one would expect.
It’s this nuance and imagery that impresses about Sanga. Throughout the film there’s a Todd Haynes sensibility in his use of windows, giving his characters a longing and distance. He utilises a melodic pace and time, quite similar to a film like Blue Valentine, where it’s non-linear at some points but it’s not without purpose. Some condensing may have perhaps improved what he wants us to take away, but all that’s shown on screen is necessary to what he needs us to.
First Girl I Loved is a necessary pain and a loving film deserving of your attention. Unflinching and transfixing. Beautiful as it is vulnerable. That’s love for you.
First Girl I Loved is screening at the locations below:
Dendy Cinemas, Newtown (NSW) from July 13.
New Farm Six Cinemas, New Farm (QLD) from July 14.
Brianna Hildebrand starred in Deadpool as the character Negasonic Teenage Warhead.