'First Girl I Loved': Sundance Review

Courtesy of Sundance Institute
A naturalistic coming-out story sinks into extreme melodrama.

Writer-director Kerem Sanga's third film tells the story of a teenage girl's tumultuous coming out.

A small, sympathetic story of a teenage girl’s rough coming out is smothered by a pile of far-fetched melodrama, a loathsomely obnoxious male lead character and far too much unsteadicam visual randomness in First Girl I Loved. Had writer-director Kerem Sanga kept things simple, intimate and unmannered in his third feature, he might have created a nice and affecting little picture of a suburban 17-year-old’s sexual proclivities coming into focus. But he’s placed too many barriers in the way, resulting in a film that won’t travel beyond a small niche audience.

It all happens very simply and naturally: Anne (Dylan Gelula, in an open, unaffected performance) is taking pictures for the high school yearbook when her camera finds a favorite subject in Sasha (Brianna Hildebrand), the star of the softball team in Chatsworth, Calif. In an easy, unforced way, they become quick friends, with an undercurrent developing that could be a precursor to something more.

Unfortunately for Anne and the audience, her best friend is a creep named Clifton (Mateo Arias), who rather resembles a teenage Adam Driver and is the kind of insensate primate who, lacking a corkscrew, thinks it’s okay to open a bottle of cheap wine either by just cracking off the top or, discouraged from that, sawing it off.

Sadly, Anne doesn’t take this as signal that it might be time to ease up on this particular relationship. She’s also clueless to the possibility that it might not be a good idea to express her feelings about Sasha to this jerk, who selfishly and insensitively uses her confidences in all the wrong ways when it comes to her potential happiness.

The girls’ relationship giddily and credibly accelerates, with Anne’s intentions becoming increasingly clear while Sasha’s remain ambiguous. The film’s best scene has the two of them texting from their respective beds as, at first tentatively, then more explicitly, they express their simultaneous arousal and push matters between them into hitherto unexplored erotic territory.

This breakthrough emboldens Anne, who is careless enough to tell Clifton about it, just as it clarifies matters in a different way for Sasha. The rest of the story is pure melodrama of a particularly unconvincing nature that involves betrayal, an unbelievable public confession, possible rape, inept school officials, legal jeopardy and other over-the-top developments that are hopelessly misjudged and remove the film very far from its one quality, its sensitivity.

Gelula is agreeably naturalistic as Anne, while the other notable performance comes from Pamela Adlon as the girl’s put-to-the-test mother. Production values are minimal. 

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Next)
Production: PSH Collective
Cast: Dylan Gelula, Brianna Hildebrand, Mateo Arias, Cameron Esposito, Erik Griffin, Jennifer Prediger, Tim Heidecker, Pamela Adlon, Ana Dela Cruz, Laura Patalano, John Redlinger
Director-screenwriter: Kerem Sanga
Producers: Seth Caplan, David Hunter, Ross Putnam
Executive producers: Leslie Braun, Stephen Braun, Peter Parshall Jensen, Stacey Parshall Jensen, Bert Kern, Matt Ratner, Rick Rosenthal, Greta Villigran, Marcus Villigran
Director of photography: Ricardo Diaz
Production designer: Susanna Lowber
Costume designer: Dandi Dewey
Editor: Shane Hazen
Music: John Swihart

Not rated, 88 minutes