By Hans Pedersen, November 2016 Issue.
If you watched the coming-of-age romance First Girl I Loved with no prior knowledge of it, you might find the tale to be so radiant with authenticity you’d assume the writer and director was inspired after coming-out as a teenage girl in high school.
But this lovable indie was actually written and directed by a straight man: Kerem Sanga does an admirable job of getting inside the shoes of Anne, a high school student who’s falling in love with another girl, stepping out of the closet and facing unjust pressures and violations.
Anne (Dylan Gelula) is also a bit of an outsider when she’s instantly smitten with a popular new cheerleader named Sasha (Brianna Hildebrand).
When she confesses to her best friend, Cliff (Mateo Arias), that she likes the girl, essentially coming out to him, he is first unnerved, and then grows unhinged.
Turns out Cliff is secretly attracted to Anne, who had always believed there was only a friendship between them. Her bewitching bestie turns on her, brutally betraying her in more than one fashion.
Meantime, Anne and Sasha embark on a series of awkward flirtations, leading up to one of the sweetest falling-in-love moments ever depicted on the silver screen. Their amorous communications via smart phones feel natural and function neatly in the plot, without feeling too overwrought or gimmicky.
But as the new cheerleader finds herself settling into the confines of the school’s social politics, her attitude toward Anne cools. Ultimately, our heroine must decide whether or not to fight for Sasha.
Anne’s process of coming out shows that recognizing and declaring your sexual identity is still no easy task for teens.
And, as events unfold, Sanga helps his performers master the illusion of the first time and the lovable and authentic qualities to their performances help elevate the believability factor, keeping us invested in the characters.
Anne and Sasha respond to one another a few times in a sing-song, almost self-mocking fashion, like real people do. From such inflections to the use of sarcasm, naturalism seems to just emanate from these dynamite performances.
Characters’ nuances are well developed; they feel like real people with moral gray areas who struggle with ethical conflicts and darker sides.
Sanga keeps the action moving along at a crisp pace, and never risks lulling us into a second-act slumber as some lower-budget films can.
A soundtrack also keeps the story rolling along, reflecting the action and echoing the tone without being feverishly hip. Even from the memorable opening melody as the camera lingers on Anne, the musical choices always serve the story.
Sanga’s film could be a near-masterpiece of indie cinema if it weren’t for the pigtailed monstrosity that’s perched on top of one actress’ head.
It’s the only unbelievable element in the entire movie: the atrocious wig worn by Hildebrand in her role as Sasha. You keep wondering when she’s going to pull it of and reveal her real ‘do, even if you haven’t seen her work in Deadpool.
Such comments, admittedly, sound terribly nitpicky. Until you see what’s parked on poor Sasha’s skull. The fake red wig is a real distraction since it’s hard to overlook. The poor choice of headwear undercuts what is an otherwise close-to-perfect movie. But it is important to point out that despite the petty hair complaints, Hildebrand and Gelula both do an incredible job of fleshing out Sasha and Anne and bringing the love story to life.
First Girl I Loved is available on iTunes.
Writer and director Kerem Sanga offers behind-the-scenes look at his new film
The title of First Girl I Loved tells it all: coming-of-age, young love and first real kiss. What’s unique about this tale of a teen love triangle is how believable the performances are, and how exquisitely it all unfolds.
The movie stars Dylan Gelula, also known as eye-rolling teenager Xanthippe on Netflix’s “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” and Brianna Hildebrand, who’s famous for her role as Negasonic Teenage Warhead in the gut-chelching Deadpool. Mateo Arias plays the role of Cliff.
Writer and director Kerem Sanga (pictured) has captured a girl’s coming-out process vividly, and with a remarkable sense of authenticity in this independent film, which won of the Audience
Award in the Best of Next category at the Sundance Film Festival.
Following his Q&A appearance with the cast after screenings at the Sundance, Sanga spoke with Echo about this love story and his talented cast.
Echo: What was the genesis of the project?
Sanga: It was kind of the confluence of a few things … I’ve been around young people teaching standardized tests. And a while ago my sister came out to me. But in terms of the story, and my version of the coming out process, I just had this idea for a character. She was very cool to write because on the surface she seems very confident in who she is … but at the same time, she doesn’t let people in on who she is. So in that way, she’s still a little timid. I didn’t have an intent or an agenda. Because these people were so far away from my own experience – I’m not gay, [the character is a] teenage girl. It was just very simple. She was someone who wanted something …
Echo: Could you talk about your rehearsal process a bit? You did have that authenticity.
Sanga: I think rehearsing is essential. Just as soon as we locked in all three of the cast, by the time we locked everybody in, we had a little less than two weeks before we started shooting. So from that moment, Mateo, who plays Cliff, and Dylan who plays the main character Anne, and Brianna, who is Sasha, came to my apartment and we just marched through the script.
I think on a film set you’ve got a hundred things going on. You want the characters to come in feeling good about what they’re doing, being prepared. We rehearsed every scene … but there’s a very intense scene in the movie we didn’t rehearse. We just read it through.
Echo: Do you think it’s easier getting LGBTQ films made these days?
Sanga: I think that’s really a case-by-case basis. I can only speak to my own journey trying to raise money for this film. Yes and no. No, in that I made a film before this, The Young Kieslowski, that was kind of a charmed thing … It was harder to raise money for this one. There were questions from people who were looking out for my best interests, definitely, but who were a little concerned. It just seemed like a lateral move from that movie to this movie. And also, it’s a gay niche movie. Especially reading in the paper the main character is gay, people don’t know, and the movie goes into another category.
My favorite films have always been European films. Louis Malle, Au Revoir Les Enfants, Persona – those are the movies I’m into … I always go into a film thinking I’m going to make a film like that. And then it just turns out to be an American movie [laughs] with a lot of music and a lot of pumped up stuff … Somebody told me the other day I hope you don’t take this the wrong way, but I feel like this is sort of John Hughes-y except the main character is gay. And I was like, no that was kind of the goal – [for it] to be part of the fabric of the movie, but not the identity of the movie. I really feel like it’s a universal story.
Echo: There was talk at Sundance about “gay incidentalism” this year (meaning the character’s sexuality is incidental to the story).
Sanga: I love that term. I don’t think this movie was quite gay incidentalism … My only beef with my own movie is that being gay is still a ‘thing’ in the movie. It’s not gay incidentalism. It’s still an obstacle that other people have to get over. But, on the flip side, it still is that way in the culture of America. Being gay is not an incidental part of life by any means. Being gay in LA in a high school – it’s not like a gay hipster utopia, it’s still tough. Maybe that’s me rationalizing, but I still feel like we’re not quite there yet.
Echo: I am sure there are a lot of young people who will have their hearts lifted by watching it.
Sanga: I hope so. I hope that young people will see it …