Sundance 2016: ‘First Girl I Loved’ is an Emotional, Romantic Experience

First Girl I Loved
Written & Directed by Kerem Sanga
USA, 2016

Oh, to be young and in love again. The rapture and frustration of it all is what drives the frenzied current of writer/director Kerem Sanga’s First Girl I Loved. 17 year-old Anne (Dylan Gelula) has just developed a crush on Sasha (Brianna Hildebrand), star athlete and most popular girl in school. Anne confides her secret in her best friend Clifton (Mateo Arias), who has been harboring a crush on her and does whatever he can to sabotage Anne and Sasha’s budding relationship.

Each of the three leads perform with striking authenticity. Dylan Gelula is an authentic and tender presence as Anne, inhabiting her insecurities and quirks with a grace and naturalism that shows a lot of promise for her going forward in her career. Brianna Hildebrand is equally an charming and heartbreaking force, the sparks between herself and Gelula lighting up the screen. Their romance happens in moments, not in expositional dialogue, and the moments are evocatively felt by the pair.

Mateo Arias has a lived-in chemistry with Gelula, the two selling their close friendship easily. As the film progresses, he spirals further and further away from her into a circle of hatred, confusion and frustration and Arias makes each beat of it emotionally resonate. The rest of the cast performs admirably as well. Tim Heidecker has a small role as a guidance counselor, a curiously unexpected warm performance (for him at least) that he pulls off nicely.

The editing by Shane Hazen turns out to be one of the film’s best traits, cutting back and forth between different timelines to reveal different truths and realizations to the audience in a way that doesn’t feel gimmicky, but engaging. During the Q and A, an audience member described the editing as feeling messy to match the characters emotions, and he was just about right on the money. Cinematographer Ricardo Diaz envelops the characters in warm lights, heightening the romance of the film and the empathy the filmmakers have to these characters.

Kerem Sanga directs his film with great affection for his characters, no matter how many bad impulses they follow or dark paths they tumble down. You get the feeling he genuinely wants the best for each of them, even though that can’t always happen. There’s an aching authenticity to how Sanga builds the budding romance between Anne and Sasha. It was so relatable that I couldn’t help but be reminded of the first girl I loved in high school. The indescribable delight and intimacy in constant text messaging, how you’d go out of your way to make an excuse to get to know them, the sort of inside jokes that develop between the two of you – all these universal moments are constructed so authentically by Sanga and his cast. Needless to say, I was somewhat of a wreck watching this film.

One thing that had been on my mind as I was watching the film, and that Sanga brought up after the screening during the Q and A, is that he had wanted to make a film with LGBT characters that felt cinematically normative and mainstream, something that didn’t feel like a fringe film but could play to a general audience. The next day, I had a discussion with a friend who had watched First Girl I Loved with me on this notion of the distinction between LGBT films and “normal” films. First Girl I Loved really makes us question how we view LGBT films vs. “normal” films, what qualifies as “normal”, and why we have a distinction there in the first place. Neither of us (myself and the friend I saw the film with) had the answer. I don’t think Sanga has the answer either, but he is asking the question with this film, and that’s an important first step in the right direction towards having that dialogue.

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