Image: Dylan Gelula as Anne in First Girl I Loved. Image Source.
Many many film-makers committed to appealing to the gaze of young, socially conscious audiences have one ambition now, in the oh-so precarious year of 2017, which is – to make the definitive queer film. Although I probably deserve to be pushed off a cliff for voicing what everyone is thinking, “queer” as an adjective means precious little now. It certainly does not necessarily mean what it might have meant 6 years ago. It could may as well just mean “different” or “quirky” which is to say, “queer” means what “feminist” did 3 years ago. It is not grounded in one identifiable or routine premise – not to say that’s altogether a bad thing, because in many ways it feels inevitable in commodity culture. Queerness has become rolled across uneven surfaces and compacted into a shape that fits the aesthetic preference of modern times. In many ways, there is the feeling that “First Girl I Loved” aims for that obtainable demographic – although it does not fully satisfy all those ambitions. What it actually delivers, and how it conveys it’s story, is so much better, more admirable than those precepts.
You might be forgiven for assuming the principal director of photography for “First Girl I Loved”, a new movie by, was someone like Maya Fuhr – the shot I’m speaking of is the mid-way scene showing the two millennial protagonists, Anne and Sasha, conveniently and beautifully awash in a Petra Collins-esque candy pink hue, exhilaration evident in their faces, distinctly enamoured, ready for what is to come. But you would be wrong. The marketing team has lost an element of what makes the movie unique by missing the opportunity to showcase one of the movie’s most appealing angles – how arrestingly unremarkable one’s first, uncertain encounter with gay love can feel. Where so many films like it construct unattainable scenarios and characters just so they can be manipulated and stretched for the convenience of a gullible audience, First Girl I Loved does not overdo it. Sitting alone in a crowded cinema, I had the sense that the movie was pushing past prettiness to speak to me, not at me, or down to me.
The kind of love and connection explored therein does not widen a psychic ravine between young heterosexual experiences and queer ones, does not dramatise it or otherise it. The only difference between the way those types of love are shown is the impositions of an unaccepting world in the background, the accompanying frequencies, and how those forces make us re-evaluate our behaviour. Brene Brown describes this as a kind of backlash resulting from both environmental/indirect and direct discrimination:
“The worst thing we lost in trauma is vulnerability. Racism is trauma. Classism and poverty? Homophobia? Trauma? Heterosexism? Trauma. The biggest casualty of that is – I cannot be vulnerable. When the ability to really be who we are becomes a realm of only the privileged, we have lost the capacity to create a school, a home, and a country that we love. We fight the big fight on the outside, but we cannot lose the battle on the inside.”
To be so vulnerable already, in the throes of puberty and cushioned by the structures around you – be they the cultures of high school and out of school environments, is difficult enough even for straight kids. But the hand of society gently still pushes you along nevertheless. The adults in your immediate environments recognise your hesitations and emotions, and the overall message from the outside world is: go for it. Some people have hastened to name this pressure “mandatory heterosexuality.” What you are feeling is valid – as long as you follow the heteronormative models of relationship that the past has set out. By no means does the film aim for this kind of ambitious and structural investigation, but it does imply the hallways and interior alleyways that have become unavailable when you decide the person you love shares your gender, and the suffocating invisibility/lack of support we feel when we go along with what is natural to us.
What I do remember about my first real understandings of “love” (I use quotation marks because love isn’t real! – but my position on the issue changes every month so I’m an unreliable judge of this) is that they were sticky, (not literally,) embarrassing, not often very smooth. They did not align with what wider culture seemed to demonstrate and offer, and communication was often halted by our silent expectations of what others might think. This was, sadly, just as well. Safety is never promised and we were often just watching our backs. As life-affirming as crushes are, there is also the unavoidable reality that to embrace being openly queer can be its own series of difficulties. And the supposed purity of love is not divorced from culture, it is apprehended by the anxieties and prejudices of the outside world, is affected and dictated by the opinions of the citizens at large.
It’s a shame that one of the most understated elements of the film – queer recognition, shame and role modelling – wasn’t a greater focus. When the two protagonists spot an older queer woman working at their go-to thrift store, they appear visibly disapproving, nervous. The notable shift from “she scares me” to actively seeking out the guidance and affirmation of that person later on in the film was something young viewers probably need, mostly because that stage in self-acceptance is so, so real. It felt like another moment in the film where the writers got it right where others had failed. There is nothing wrong with seeking out guidance figures outside the limited perspective of heterosexual parents to remind you of what you’re worth, to give you the intellectual/spiritual tools to grapple through the world with some degree of certainty.
Can I also just say that her best friend is possibly the most unlikeable shithead in current filmic memory. Oh my god. Maybe this is even a testament to the film-makers, who portray him so startlingly as a high school boy who is at once totally aware of his influence and totally unable to hide how reckless he is with that exact influence. That mix of entitlement and cowardice lies at the heart of every homophobic, misogynist male friend I tolerated in high school because I thought those people were going to become my bosses one day….so I might as well get used to it. Which is only half true.
When the movie works, when it rings it in successfully (which it often does), it is due to its frankness and ability to hand uncomfortability. An easy comparison to draw upon could be Blue is the Warmest Colour, which too adopts the sensibilities and aesthetics of independent movies and dials up the drama so as to create the most affecting response, but does not offer much beyond the thrill of pseudo-lesbian fatalism. In a way, “First Girl I Loved” still leans onto these tropes. They are expected, so they are to be fulfilled – sometimes it’s nothing more than that. You can tell, however, that the writer and director, Kerem Sanga is well researched . The characterisations are almost always on the mark and well-considered, something that so many films of its kind cannot do. We have come to expect an aggrandised sort of teendom in American cinema, the kind rationalised by movies like Diary of a Wimpy Kid and 13 Reasons Why. The exchanges between Anne and Sasha, on the other hand, feel frighteningly true to life. The way sexting and communicating and consent and homophobia is handled means their relationship could even be a documentarian style re-enactment of first-time young queer experiences, and the emotional frequencies are mostly spot on. The dull excitement is tinged with confusion and delirium, the fear and longing tangible.
The humour is topical and sharp, heart-warming without pushing the earnesty into unsustainable levels – so many adult writers attempting to write teenagers fail to truly capture the realities of youth. They put words in the mouths of actors that would feasibly never say, and those lines seem grating when they become articulated. First Girl I Loved approaches the trickiness of consent well but still unfortunately seems to rely upon sexual violence as a device for character development. While I wonder if any queer film can get away with not doing that in 2017, I admit that the resulting exploration into consent that continues in snatches throughout the rest of the film was extremely validating.
For all that it promises, First Girl I Loved does not stretch out or cash in on the spectacle of young gay love. It suggests a Glee-esque success that queerness cannot ever really exist, and then takes it away. Because really, TV show Glee, for all of its failings and corniness, remains one of the few offerings of queerness that does not narrow itself and compromise, indulging ultra-romantics and teen heat. In comparison, Anne’s love interest is only really engaged for about half the movie before deciding to give in to the combined pressures of her school team, her peers, her parents. The positioning of the memory of her feelings, when they were dizzyingly real and possible, are pushed to their limits by the film-makers. They carry across as spectacularly relevant and remain embedded in the consciousness.
I am reminded of how much I needed these stories, how much I would have benefited by seeing them when I was the same age as the characters in the movie. If only on this basis, First Girl I Loved succeeds. It gives an honest portrayal of the fleetingness of love, and how it is never guaranteed or promised to the kids who happen to bear the burden of queerness.
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