When you are a teenager, having a crush can be truly agonising and all-consuming. It’s equal parts thrill and terror when your feelings are reciprocated, as you innocently try to work out how to turn those feelings into a relationship. But, if you happen to be a heterosexual couple while you’re navigating all this, there are endless guides on how you should act and your partnership is symbolically celebrated every day in songs, TV shows and movies. That’s why a First Girl I Loved is unusual, and so very welcome. Unlike 99.9% of films produced on the topic of love, it is unashamedly gay, even as it works through how shame feels if you are gay.
Written and directed by Kerem Sanga, First Girl I Loved is a smart, affirming film about teenage love. Dylan Gelula plays Anne, who has fallen for senior cool-girl/softball star Sasha, played by Brianna Hildebrand. We follow Anne and Sasha as they try and figure out what the unspoken spark between them might mean, and what it could possibly lead to. Anne’s best friend Clifton, played by Mateo Arias, complicates the story with his own feelings for Anne spilling out in dangerous ways.
While the closure of the film was a little clunky (and I wondered if they actually had a few different endings in mind), overall First Girl I Loved is utterly engrossing. The opening scenes are framed tightly and closely around the protagonists, and we remain at eye level, almost as if we are right there with them – behind the softball fence, lingering at the doorway to the bedroom, walking down the street sipping $4 wine. We’re next to them all the way, not as a voyeur, but as a friend along for the ride.
Gelula’s performance is very commendable. She strikes a delicate balance between unbearable apathetic teen, and captivating hero that we want to succeed. Through Anne we see just how brilliant and strong teens can be, even if they’re totally clueless. Teens are often denigrated by society writ-large for being naive, but First Girl I Loved shows the pain and beauty of fumbling through, the intelligence involved in not knowing but pushing on nonetheless. The awkward innocence of Anne and Sasha’s interactions is wonderfully executed, and there was something so familiar about their veiled giggling banter that I felt like I was watching my young self up on screen.
As I sat watching the film unfold, I found myself desperately wanting things to work out for the characters. I wanted it to end happily not only because I was so engrossed in the story, but because happy endings for gay characters are so few and far between. It’s been great to see more films coming out that address romance between women, like Lovesong in 2016 or Carol in 2015, but many remain stories about tortured, impossible love, or a love that’s always on the horizon that we never get to see fully flourish. That’s why Imagine Me & You from 2005 is still one of the greatest lesbian romance films – not only does it relish in the genre of romcom rather than locating gayness in the seriousness of arthouse, but it moves through unspoken desire to love shouted from the rooftops.
While I can imagine some queer theorists arguing that the lack of traditionally happy endings for gay films is welcome, because who wants to live up to that heteronormative expectation anyway, it’s also pretty shit to constantly have popular culture either ignore your relationship or portray it is an inevitably difficult affair. While there is something to be said for representing the reality of homophobia and the difficulty of queer life, it is a pain that everyone else gets the option of fantasy (because let’s be real it’s not like heterosexual life really ends happily for everyone) except for gays who must remain proper realists.
First Girl I Loved is no romcom, and it is serious. But it does manage to deal with difficult issues and give us a sense of both catharsis and hope, even as it leaves many things unresolved. It doesn’t make the empty promise that so many teens are barraged with that “it gets better”, but it does suggest that queer kin can be found and that inner strength is possible while traversing difficult and unknown terrain. First Girl I Loved gifts its audience a small beam of light for navigating this path, and for that it should be celebrated.