The attraction you feel at first sight when you’re young is a thrilling, intoxicating experience. Not easily replicated, this is usually the excitement that comes from discovery, being young and effervescent — a feeling that can also be terrifying. In First Girl I Loved, Director Kerem Sanga is able to capture that moment on film. Moreover, what’s special about the way in which Sanga approaches first love is that it includes the added stress of travailing through sexual identity in high school, in this case between a jock and an artsy photographer who writes for the school paper. The relationship here is presented in a loving and honest way, beyond sensationalism, showing that a same-sex relationship can develop like any other.
When Anne (Dylan Gelula) first notices Sasha (Brianna Hildebrand), she is playing softball. Anne is taking photos for the school paper and is stopped in her tracks, as she shoots Sasha, later to follow after her. The first few exchanges between the two girls are timid but flirty, and they instantly click while exchanging text messages and calls. It all seems to be going brilliantly, but then again, the two girls are in high school, and this is still a taboo relationship. For Sasha, especially, there is a lot of shame involved. Sasha is a star athlete, popular and facing all the pressures to conform to the “good girl” stereotype she must live up to. On the other hand, Anne is allowed more freedom through a more honest relationship with her mother and her outlet of photography.
There is tenderness between the two young women, and Sanga is able to capture those moments through slow-moving scenes that include closeups on the elated faces of the actresses. Sanga captures this affection with softness and shoots their on-screen first kiss without making it into a sordid affair, only later to have the camera pan out and show the reaction from bystanders and that all too familiar male gaze, illustrating the many constraints for this kind of relationship.
Tension builds up as Anne confides in her guy friend, Cliff (Mateo Arias), her feelings for Sasha in one of the most genuine coming out scenes on film, but reaction by brute Cliff turns to lashing out and other even trickier situations. The film shows what’s at stake for the two women discovering love and their own sexuality, while trying to come to terms with it. These are confusing times and the depiction here is not a romantic one, but one that feels closer to life as scenes also capture the awkwardness and uncomfortable feelings of wanting to get close but fearing that closeness at the same time, with the added complication of negative feelings associated with being a lesbian.
The way Sanga uses music adds to the ethereal nature of the relationship between the two young women. John Swihart composed the score, which genuinely adds to the tension of the burgeoning love between Anne and Sasha and the ensuing conflicts that the tension of that relationship fosters. The film’s overall narrative does well in showing the tremendous self-doubt and outside pressures associated with coming out, it takes determination, courage and self-love, yet it cannot happen without exploration.
First Girl I Loved runs 91 minutes and is not rated. It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year where it won the NEXT Audience Award. You can stream it online via itunes, Google Play, Vimeo, Vudu and YouTube, but you can support Independent Ethos by ordering it via Amazon. Images and a screener link was provided by PSH Collective for the purposes of this review.