Sundance 2016: First Girl I Loved Review – A Truly Great Coming of Age Tale
Every year at Sundance there is one film that I walk into with zero expectations and walk out of absolutely loving it. This year that film is First Girl I Loved. Written and directed by Kerem Sanga, First Girl I Loved tells the story of Annie (Dylan Gelula), a spunky seventeen-year old that discovers she has feelings for a softball player named Sasha (Brianna Hildebrand). Scared of how others will view her, Annie turns to her best friend Clifton (Mateo Arias) for support. Unfortunately, Clifton isn’t happy or accepting of Annie’s newfound sexuality and does everything he can to get in the way of her happiness.
First Girl I Loved is a honest look at what it is like being a teenager and discovering who you are. The film showcases a male/female love story as well as female/female love story. Having both makes the film so much more complex than the standard coming-of-age tale. I was once engaged to a woman that discovered that she was a lesbian after going to college. It was extremely difficult to accept that and I felt the same struggle that Clifton feels in the film.
The truth is coming out and having others understand and accept it is never as easy as it seems or should be. While I am straight, I do have several friends who are gay and have struggled with coming out to their parents and friends. Sanga’s film portrays that struggle in a realistic and honest way. The viewer feels the pain that Annie is feeling and can relate to her struggle. Sanga’s script makes it perfectly clear early on that Annie never set out to hurt anyone but instead just wanted to be true to herself.
The character Sasha, however, is too worried about what others think. She hides her feelings and is too afraid to be honest about who she is even when push comes to shove. There is a great scene near the end of the film involving a photo that ends up in the yearbook. This scene packs an emotional punch and becomes the moment of truth for all of the characters and their actions.
The chemistry between Gelula and Hildebrand is incredibly genuine and occurs almost instantaneously. As a viewer, I fell in love with these characters just as quickly as they did with one another. The conversations that they share through text messaging are such a realistic portrait of teenagers today. I found the sexting scene in particular to be comedic, awkward, and honest.
I really hope that after this film gets a release Dylan Gelula gets offered more leading roles. She is absolutely spectacular as Annie and this is a career making performance. Her portrayal of Annie is one of the most honest depictions of a young female trying to understand and accept her sexuality that I have ever seen captured in a film. Dylan really has bright future ahead of her and I cannot wait to see what she does next.
As for Brianna Hildebrand and Mateo Arias, they both serve as great supporting actors. Hildebrand really brought a level of authenticity to the character. You can tell that Sasha was a very conflicted character that wanted to be happy and honest but just couldn’t do it because she was too concerned with how others around her would judge her. Arias’ Clifton was great and the chemistry between him and Gelula was spot on. There are a number of great scenes between them but one in particular blew me away. I don’t want to spoil it but it’s a rather intense scene that makes you question what happened in it after its over.
Several young ladies at my screening ran up to Gelula and Hildebrand afterwards in tears thanking them for being part of the film. One girl even asked the director during the Q&A, how she can make sure more films like this get made and are in the mainstream. I have to wonder how that can happen as well. A lot of films make people laugh or make them cry but when people actually feel as though they are being presented in a film that makes it truly special.
All in all, I pretty much adored everything about First Girl I Loved. While I did have a few minor issues with some of the humor near the end, it didn’t bother me enough to really complain. Overall, I thought Sanga managed to balance humor and drama while being genuine and honest. Just like life, this film has some really light hearted moments as well as some “shit just got real” moments. It’s a refreshing coming of age tale told from a perspective that we just sadly don’t get to see all that often. Like the girl at my Q&A said, I do truly hope that this film inspires more films like it.
MovieManMenzel’s final rating for First Girl I Loved is a 9 out of 10.