Sundance Film Review: ‘First Girl I Loved’

Two SoCal high schoolers feel stirrings of same-sex attraction in Kerem Sanga's middling drama.

Dylan Gelula, Brianna Hildebrand, Mateo Arias, Cameron Esposito, Erik Griffin, Jennifer Prediger, Tim Heidecker, Pamela Adlon, Ana Dela Cruz, Laura Patalano, John Redlinger.

Initially a somewhat bland, under-detailed tale of burgeoning attraction between two female high schoolers, “First Girl I Loved” gets more interesting as their tentative relationship crashes against the usual private uncertainties and social anxieties of that age. Those conflicts aren’t particularly well developed either, however, compromised by uneven character writing and an awkward flashback structure. Like writer-director Kerem Sanga’s “The Young Kieslowski” last year, which was about unplanned youth pregnancy, this watchable but middling drama tackles a worthy, relatable subject without quite figuring out what to say about it. The film’s theme, TV names and a certain degree of junior-lipstick-lesbian titillation will open some commercial avenues, with modest niche home-format sales assured.

Anne (Dylan Gelula, from Netflix’s “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”) is a mildly quirky 17-year-old who lives with her single mom (Pamela Adlon) and exercises her arty side as photographer for the school yearbook. It’s in the latter capacity that she encounters softball-playing senior star athlete Sasha (Brianna Hildebrand), and is instantly smitten. She can’t wait to tell her best (and seemingly only) friend, Clifton (Mateo Arias). She’s taken aback when his reaction is not supportive but jealously hostile — he always hoped their friendship was just a stepping stone to “something more.” Meanwhile, Anne orchestrates meeting Sasha under the guise of a yearbook interview, and the two young women instantly click. After Anne has a spat with Mom, she sleeps over at her new bestie’s, with some (rather murkily defined) fireworks ensuing.

The next morning, however, clouds obscure the sunshine of first love — notably Sasha’s internal “Am I a lesbian?!” and “What will people think??” freakout, exacerbated by Anne’s need for affirmation and a suddenly-chilled-out Clifton’s assumption that they’re already an item. When there’s rancor all around, Anne makes an impulsive decision that necessitates a leap forward some weeks, and triggers an emergency parent/teacher/counselor summit.

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These latter events considerably up the narrative intrigue, but they aren’t very well worked out or gracefully introduced. Sanga’s screenplay jigsaws just a few episodes, taking them out of chronological order in a way that doesn’t make a lot of storytelling sense. While the characters’ later actions are credibly conflicted, they could and should have had the groundwork laid earlier on.

We get far too much of Anne and Sasha nervously giggling with and about each other. That’s realistic adolescent behavior, but somehow it leaves no leftover room for illuminating their surrounding social, family and school lives. We barely see them interact with other students; their parents (though Adlon gets a fair amount of screen time) are even more poorly defined. At worst, Sanga seems more interested in watching his two pretty-as-a-picture leads’ midsections than he does exploring the personal histories and environs that shaped their still-formative selves. (The film was shot in Los Angeles, but suburban setting is granted so little personality it might as well be anywhere.)

The results are more well intentioned than actually purposeful, but nonetheless slick and pacey enough to hold attention. The performances, like the tech/design contributions, are pleasantly strong enough without making a strong enough imprint to elevate material that could have used another fine-tuning draft or two.

Sundance Film Review: 'First Girl I Loved'

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Next), Jan. 24, 2016. Running time: 90 MIN.

Production: A PSH Collective production in association with Whitewater Films, Tilted Windmill Productions, Bee-Hive Prods. and Blacklist Digital. (International sales: CAA, Los Angeles.) Produced by Seth Caplan, Ross Putman, David Hunter. Executive producers, Leslie Braun, Stephen Braun, Marcus Villigran, Greta Villigran, Peter Parshall Jensen, Stacey Parshall Jensen, Tims Johnson, Narbeh Tatoussian, Rick Rosenthal, Matt Ratner, Bert Kern.

Crew: Directed, written by Kerem Sanga. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Ricardo Diaz; editor, Shane Hazen; music, John Swihart; music supervisor, Dan Wilcox; production designer, Susannah Lowber; costume designer, Dandi Dewey; sound, Darryl Williams; supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer, Trip Brock; casting director, Carly Sturgeon.

With: Dylan Gelula, Brianna Hildebrand, Mateo Arias, Cameron Esposito, Erik Griffin, Jennifer Prediger, Tim Heidecker, Pamela Adlon, Ana Dela Cruz, Laura Patalano, John Redlinger.

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