by Haley GoetzFirst Girl I Loved is a queer coming-out film that follows familiar tropes under a rather problematic premise. Directed by Kerem Sanga, the film contains many pitfalls regarding aspects of its subject matter and overall direction. Writing this as someone who identifies as queer, I think this film is another example of the fact that queer representation needs to be better addressed in modern independent filmmaking. For the most part, queer films dealing with two girls should not be helmed by male directors. First Girl I Loved certainly doesn’t have the voyeuristic style that films like Blue is the Warmest Color does, but it has issues of its own.
Anne (Dylan Gelula), a Southern California tomboy, decides to pen a journalistic exposé about a classmate named Sasha (Brianna Hildebrand of Deadpool). In addition to being a star softball player on the high school’s team, Sasha is way higher up on the social totem pole than Anne is. However, through their interviews, the girls begin to display a rapport that suggests something more than just friends. Anne’s best friend, Clifton (Mateo Arias), gets jealous that Anne isn’t in love with him, which causes him to do the worst thing possible to her. When Anne and Sasha’s playful relationship becomes a bit more serious, several obstacles come to stand in their way. A final confrontation ensues and, as per most modern lesbian films, a happy ending doesn’t completely come about.
The most brutal scene in the film occurs when Clifton rapes Anne. She’s right in the middle of telling him about her infatuation with Sasha (which he completely dismisses) when he suddenly kisses her. Anne becomes more and more confused as Clifton takes his actions further, eventually jumping out of bed and telling him through tears that she likes girls instead of guys. Clifton says that Anne is a terrible person for leading him on and that she’s just lying about who she really likes. While I understand that people (especially teenagers) can have a difficult time coming out, I feel that this sequence was very rushed and intense. When Clifton’s actions ultimately get brushed aside by the film’s end, I was livid. If something like this is addressed in a film and later talked about, but nothing happens, then what’s the point of including it? Not only is this offensive to any viewers who have been through a similarly traumatic incident, it also perpetuates the culture of silence surrounding rape in modern times.
This whole film deals with the very real idea that coming out is a scary process (especially while in high school) and that it’s not something to be taken lightly. I appreciate how it showcases these conflicting feelings of heightened confusion and elation at the same time. Both Anne and Sasha don’t understand what they’re feeling, but they sort of just ride the wave and enjoy themselves. It’s also amusing to witness a scene in which Anne and Sasha go on a “date” to a thrift store aptly named “Out of the Closet.” I think a queer film set in high school should be tender and emotional, and First Girl I Loved certainly hits these notes effectively.
The finale of the film revolves around a large altercation between all parties involved in the story. Anne, who works on the yearbook, adds a picture of her and Sasha kissing at a bar. For some reason, Clifton is present at this meeting, and this where I got pretty ticked off. The high school guidance counselor, Mr. Q (Tim Heidecker), knows about what happened between Clifton and Anne, and yet he does nothing. Instead, Clifton is almost portrayed as a hero figure toward the end of this scene, as he apparently helps to alleviate the conflict between Anne and Sasha’s families. Sasha’s parents are outspoken homophobes, whereas Anne’s mother supports her daughter no matter what. When these disparate parental figures see the picture of Sasha and Anne, they react in different ways. Clifton’s crime is completely brushed aside, and a second sexual assault plot gets thrown into the mix when Sasha tells everyone that Anne forced Sasha to kiss her. Obviously this was meant to put Sasha’s overbearing mother (Ana Dela Cruz) at ease, but still. If I were to watch this film when I was in high school, I would’ve felt highly vindicated by the end of this pivotal scene.I mentioned this before, and I’ll say it again: Most queer films about women should not be directed by men. Period. This is where a lot of backlash came from when Blue is the Warmest Color released in 2013, as it became clear that director Abdellatif Kechiche was coming at certain scenes with a voyeuristic approach that wasn’t necessary. Kechiche controversially filmed some sex scenes in Blue is the Warmest Color from the perspective of what’s known as the “male gaze,” meaning these scenes weren’t necessarily useful in the film’s storytelling. Rather, the explicit visuals of these sequences only served the gratification of a certain audience. Kerem Sanga is certainly good at getting into the emotions of his characters. However, I just feel sad that this same glance into queer culture can’t be done by a woman. The whole Clifton subplot isn’t even needed, and I was annoyed that he even had to exist as a character. It would be much more refreshing to have a positive lesbian film taking place in an American high school. That would be more radical than having some random straight guy screw everything up. Romance films of the straight variety happen all the time, but why is it that seemingly every time there is a gay or lesbian couple in an American film, it usually doesn’t end up well for them?
There are two aspects of this film that I would like to highlight as commendable. The first is the infectious chemistry between Sasha and Anne. I haven’t seen a young adult film that has made me this giddy about love in a long time. I also really enjoy how the courtship between the girls plays out, from their first time getting to know each other during Anne’s “interview” to their flirtatious but revealing texting sessions. The second great aspect is the cinematography by Ricardo Diaz. A scene in which Anne and Sasha kiss for the first time is particularly splendid in its visualization. A drab bar is suddenly turned into the most sensual place in the world by the manipulation of the space’s light and colors. In addition, a lot of slow-motion shots and close-ups are used throughout the film in order to show rather than tell about the burgeoning romance between the two girls. More romantic films could learn from this technique.
Now more than ever, queer cinema is drastically important to American culture. While I was definitely upset over certain segments of this film, overall it tells a story that will resonate with its audience — even if said story doesn’t end on the lightest of notes. The film is still very important because of its contribution to queer representation in modern American cinema. If there’s a message that someone could take away from First Girl I Loved, it’s in the final scene in which Anne admits to herself what she’s been hiding all along. After she accepts herself and comes out to Jasmine (Cameron Esposito), an employee at the Out of the Closet thrift store, it’s like the biggest weight has been lifted off her chest. She smiles, because it’s true that admitting certain things about yourself can be an exciting moment no matter what.
3 out of 5 stars