Sparkling with nostalgic high school vibes, “First Girl I Loved” is like the many teen dramas that came before it, taking its first steps into the silly, irrational unknown. All fun and games until someone falls in love and gets hurt, no? But are the consequences greater when the burgeoning relationship is between two young and confused high school girls that have absolutely no idea what they are doing? This is what Kerem Sanga’s newest Sundance winning feature strives to capture and answer: what happens as the first inklings of love are born, what happens when discovering one’s true identity, and finally, what happens when facing the fact that these two moments sometimes don’t mesh at all.
Anne, played by a captivating Dylan Gelula, lives a rebellious life, flanked by her best friend Cliff (Mateo Arias). A sort of disheveled beauty, with a blue streak of hair and a natural sense of androgynous fashion, Anne is magnetic, drawing our curiosity towards the screen. As Cliff and Anne set out opening bottles of wine with samurai swords and attacking each other like predator and prey in a convenience store, “First Girl I Loved” initially starts out as slightly less intriguing than I hoped, despite the initial magnetism born from synopsis and trailer. However, the frivolous nature of the film changes dramatically when secrets are spilled - secrets that change the course of this friendship forever. You see, Anne isn’t harbouring unrequited feelings for her best friend, as these things tend to go. She’s fallen for softball player and role model senior, Sasha, a radiant Brianne Hildebrand in the role. And yes, softball players are girls, not boys.
As Anne and Sasha’s friendship-relationship blossoms, the film takes the twists and turns of teenage love so smoothly and with total ease. It’s messy, confusing, and heartbreaking - but sometimes, just sometimes, it makes more sense than anything else in the world. Well, until it doesn’t anymore and the inevitable crash and burn of young love incinerates the hearts and reputations of everyone involved. The two female leads do an amazing job portraying characters that are constantly in a state of figuring themselves out and yet, never really getting there. And well, that’s growing up to a T.
The giggles, the inside jokes, the awkward tension between two people that are meant to be more than just friends - it’s all here in Sanga’s new wave teenage romance and it’s all very real and very raw in its portrayal of growing up. If you can forgive the plot technicalities glossed over within the story, not think too much about what’s left unsaid between certain characters, and see this as a sugary sleek, well handled narrative about coming out, you may just find something to love about “First Girl I Loved”. It’s a slick, hip take on same sex discovery and the consequences it sadly brings. It’s all about finding yourself and accepting that at the most terrifying point in your life: being a teenager. We’ve all been there or will be there. And there’s no escaping self-discovery when it rears its ugly, yet necessary little head.