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High school student Anne (Dylan Gelula) is in love. She’s enjoyed her friendship with the equally rebellious Cliff (Mateo Arias) for years. Jacking wine from local liquor stores, but always leaving money for payment. Chopping off the ends of wine bottles with samurai swords because they can’t find a corkscrew. It’s all dumb fun, but it’s dumb teenage fun. A time when the most frivolous activities can seem other-worldly. But Anne is in love, and life is about to change for the two of them. Only she isn’t in love with Cliff.
What writer and director Kerem Sanga captures so well in First Girl I Loved is high school. What he captures even better is falling in love, or the naïve idea of what it means to be in love as a teenager. Anne’s love for Sasha (Brianna Hildebrand) is pure but burdened with what it would mean not only for her relationship with Cliff, but for her life in general. Sanga conveys this to us with such a deft touch that it’s a shame he fumbles the other issues that arise in First Girl. If the film is trying to display the trials and tribulations with coming out, then it can’t dismiss the unforgivable acts of its heroes.
In an effort to accentuate the positives, let’s start there. The relationship between the romantic leads is perfectly played out in the beginning. Gelula, best known as the spoiled stepdaughter on The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, is the pillar in a movie that revolves around her character, Anne. She’s funny and dismissive when the moment calls for it, but can turn on a dime during a sincere moment of affection or longing. If Anne is the girl on the wrong side of the tracks, Hildebrand’s Sasha is in the top 15% of her class — a go-getter and a top athlete. She’s oblivious when it comes to Anne’s feelings at first, but slowly begins to feel something for her in return. Much of this is done through expression and without a word being uttered, and Hildebrand pulls this off with a subtle touch. She has more to lose as far as her social standing is concerned, but there aren’t any “Oh, sheesh, what should I do?” moments.
Tender is the best way to describe their relationship. Awkward gestures that start off with the French pronunciation of “cigarette” after kissing goodbye on either cheek. Sneaking out to go to a nearby bar. Sanga’s use of slow-motion in these scenes isn’t manipulative; it’s meant to show how impactful the moments are for both Anne and Sasha. They affect them just as much as the audience, and that’s the whole point of the movie, really. There are some events we can never capture as adults that we can when we’re younger, and that’s where First Girl I Loved is at its best.
Anne’s relationship with Cliff isn’t handled nearly as well, but this isn’t the fault of the actors. Arias is convincing as Cliff, capturing that character’s frustration, sadness, and anger when dealing with Anne’s coming out. In a way, he’s just as confused as she is. The problem is that much of First Girl’s driving force is based around a flashback of this life-changing moment. Each time we jump back to this bedroom scene, we get a little more of what went down. Something happens here that looks to be a misunderstanding, but is brought up later on as possibly being something else. This is a vague description so as to not spoil the events that occur later on.
To get into the movie’s demerits would spoil much of the movie, and this review isn’t designed to do that. Just know that a question is posed in the second half by the school’s guidance counselor (played by a miraculously-not-distracting Tim Heidecker) to Cliff that needs to be resolved, but never is. An irresponsible act of getting back at somebody is left off in a way that suggests it shouldn’t be taken that seriously. Alas, I’m speaking in riddles. First Girl covers heavy issues, but doesn’t see all of them through. It’s a frustrating element that takes away from the movie’s strengths.
First Girl I Loved is one of the only romantic movies that doesn’t have a meet-cute scene. It features the longest texting sequence I can recall where the only words coming across are through narration, close-ups of cell phones, or texts appearing beside the characters. There is so much to be admired about First Girl from a technical point and in how it deals with coming out. The young leads get a lot of support from established performers Pamela Adlon (Louie), Heidecker, and even comedian Cameron Esposito. However, I found it difficult to forgive Anne in a way writer/director Sanga wants us to. If you can find your way around this issue, there may be a lot to love about First Girl I Loved.