‘My First Kiss and the People Involved’: LAFF Review

My First Kiss and the People Involved -Still 1- India Menuez-H 2016
Courtesy of Dodgeville Films
The painterly visuals and committed performances aren’t enough.

An impressionistic fiction feature revolves around a group home for developmentally challenged adults.

Its title might suggest a sardonic coming-of-age tale of sexual adventure, but though My First Kiss and the People Involved does spin around stirrings of love, it’s a very different animal: an experiment in subjective storytelling, filtered through the perspective of a mental-health patient. The main character, a young woman played by India Salvor Menuez with a feverish, high-strung delicacy, speaks perhaps three dozen words during the film. 

Taking admirable chances with his first narrative feature, writer-director Luigi Campi demonstrates a sure grasp of sensory detail, but involving drama proves more elusive. While the movie’s commercial prospects may be slim, its competition slot at the LA Film Festival should kick-start further bookings on the fest circuit. 

Menuez, whose previous credits include Olivier Assayas’ Something in the Air and the series Transparent, thoroughly inhabits the role of Sam, who is living in a group home in rural New York. Her caretakers and fellow residents are stunned when she drops her customary nonverbal posture to speak a few words. The sentence she utters parrots caregiver Lydia (Liza Thorn), the only person in the house with whom Sam feels any connection. Thorn, who fronts the band Starred and is something of a fashion muse (Menuez, too, has been an inspiration to artists), is a bolt of bluesy lightning amid the recessive action, especially when she sings a couple of tunes she composed for the film. 

Sam’s attraction to the relatively worldly musician blossoms into acute longing after Lydia leaves the ragtag household. But more than just missing Lydia, an increasingly agitated Sam believes that the group’s residential supervisor, Larry (Robert Beitzel), is hiding something sinister about her absence. Her suspicions are sparked by an apparent act of violence she witnesses through the windows of an upstairs room — the kind of half-seen incident that has fueled countless movie mysteries. Here it plays out on a plane of cognitive limitation rather than genre tension, although there’s a sly noirish touch when a woman (Rebecca Harris), blond like Lydia, shows up in the house as if to replace her. 

But even given the distorting prism of Sam’s comprehension, the story’s attempt at intrigue manages to feel both clumsily overwrought and wan. Campi’s screenplay is more convincingly concerned with his protagonist’s keen alertness to the sights and sounds of her immediate surroundings. The eye-catching camerawork by Giacomo Belletti gives form to Sam’s heightened sensitivity — in the quotidian routine of the house, with its eccentric occupants, and especially in the idyllic world of summery green that surrounds it. 

Landing somewhere between artsy dreamscape and kitchen-sink realism, the movie captures the balancing-act dynamics among the household’s residents as they welcome a new pet or prepare for a visit from a counselor, who will assess whether Sam needs to return to the hospital. The outpatients are well played by Carmen M. Herlihy, Josh Caras, Spencer Aste and a particularly memorable Michael Donaldson, as the charmingly fretful Morgan. In subject matter and setting, if not in approach, the film recalls such 1960s psychiatric dramas as David and Lisa and Lilith, an association that’s accentuated by the retro feel of the main melody in Bonnie McAlvin’s excellent score. 

Campi has stated that he was inspired by an autistic woman’s YouTube video and set out to build a film around a character’s “language of gestures and sounds.” With her hands fluttering against the landscape or along the strings of an electric guitar, her hesitant lips shaping unheard words or pressed together for wisps of atonal humming, Menuez creates such a language. The movie, on the other hand, doesn’t achieve such coherence, and rarely shakes off its self-consciousness. But it will be interesting to see how Campi's unconventional, immersive approach evolves.

Venue: LA Film Festival (U.S. Fiction Competition)
Production companies: Dodgeville Films and Noiz Film

Cast: India Salvor Menuez, Robert Beitzel, Josh Caras, Liza Thorn, Carmen M. Herlihy, Michael Donaldson, Spencer Aste, Rebecca Harris, Ray Virta
Director-screenwriter: Luigi Campi
Producers: Andy Nguyen, Ko-Rely Pi, Mayuran Tiruchelvam
Executive producers: Luigi Campi, Feliciano Campi, Gerry Kim
Director of photography: Giacomo Belletti
Production designer: Charlotte Royer
Costume designer: Sarah Maiorino
Editor: Konstantinos Antonopoulos
Composers: Bonnie McAlvin
Sound designer: Nathan Ruyle
Casting: Kate Murray 

Not rated, 80 minutes