First Girl I Loved (M). Director: Kerem Sanga. Starring: Dylan Gelula, Brianna Hildebrand, Mateo Arias, Pamela Adlon. 114 minutes
Some films seem custom made for the high school English curriculum. First Girl I Loved should be essential viewing and a conversation starter for teenagers and their parents, for its sensitive and authentic exploration of the lived experiences of young people coming to terms with their sexuality in a high school context.
Early in the film, Anne (Gelula) confesses to her best friend Cliff (Arias) that she is in love with a softball player from their school. He laughs at her; she knows nothing about sport, boys play baseball, girls play softball. This turns out to be a traumatic and pivotal conversation, which the film returns to repeatedly, revealing a little more each time. Anne is well aware of the difference between softball and baseball.
The object of her affection is Sasha (Hildebrand), whom Anne has occasion to get to know when she interviews her for the school yearbook. Their friendship is immediate and sweetly flirtatious; the girls begin texting each other regularly, and a mutual attraction grows.
Anne has to navigate these experiences largely alone, having fallen out with Cliff, whose responses to her are confused by his own attraction to her and by his bruised ego. Anne's mother Sharon (Adlon) is affectionate but distracted by her work, and her teachers are painted as caring but distant from the experiences of their young charges.
This is new territory for Sasha too, for whom the progression of her relationship with Anne is marked by uncertainty. The film hints at both peer and familial pressures holding her back, though does so in an understated way that is typical of the film as a whole. This is a master class in showing rather than telling, and the strength of the writing and performances is such that we are able to infer the motivations and hidden thoughts of characters without them needing to be explicitly stated.
"Moments overspill their boundaries, to influence an individual's thinking, feeling and acting at a later time."
Writer-director Sanga delicately disjoins time, holding certain moments close to his chest and revealing them at the right time to maximise emotional impact. These small acts of concealing and revealing help build suspense, and emphasise the ways in which moments overspill their immediate boundaries, to influence an individual's thinking, feeling and acting at a later time.
Thus that early conversation with Cliff, and a certain long night spent between Anne and Sasha, become fulcra for certain events that test our sympathies for all involved. At the same time the film remains at all times steeped in empathy, particularly for both Anne and Sasha.
To reveal too much in this review would be a disservice to Sanga and his careful plotting. But this is a coming of age story, and hope and heartbreak are equally pertinent markers on Anne's journey of self-discovery. The film leaves open several questions as a basis for discussion and reflection about how we, as parents, teachers or young people, might compassionately respond in similar circumstances.
Tim Kroenert is editor of Eureka Street.