The wistfulness of Kerem Sanga’s “First Girl I Loved” is right there in the past tense of the title; we know up front that this romance won’t last. But, of course, when you’re young and in love you think in terms of forever, and at its best, Sanga’s film captures how forever can live in the fleeting moment. The film played Monday night at the Wisconsin Film Festival.
The two lead actresses in “First Girl I Loved” are absolutely terrific. Dylan Gelulla plays Anne, an awkward, self-conscious outcast at her high school, while Sasha (Brianna Hildebrand of “Deadpool”) is a confident jock on the softball team.
But despite being from different cliques, they immediately recognize something in each other. Using her status as yearbook editor as an excuse to interview her, Anne pursues a friendship with Sasha, but even she’s not self-aware enough to know if friendship is all she wants. The girls become acquaintances, then late-night texting buddies, then confidants, then more.
Sanga films all this quite beautifully, finding the significance in even the smallest interactions; this is a film where a text message can send a shiver down your spine. Both Anne and Sasha are in uncharted territory for both of them, excited but fearful, and “First Girl I Loved” captures all the conflicting intense emotions of both new love and self-discovery.
Unfortunately, the film breaks the spell it’s cast by cluttering up the story with melodrama and narrative tricks. Key scenes are suddenly and inexplicably skipped, so that we’re unsure what’s going on, until Sanga revisits them later in flashbacks. This can be an effective technique in a film noir, but we’ve invested so much emotion in these characters that it feels like a cheat to suddenly pull us out of their lives and start jerking us around.
The film also veers into deep melodrama in the third act, conjuring up plot points involving blackmail, date rape, and a courtroom-style interrogation involving clueless parents and school officials. It’s all too much; there’s plenty of drama to be found in the relationship, and in how it might affect the girls’ relationships with their parents or how it affects Anne’s friendship with her clueless, horndog best friend (Mateo Arias).
“First Girl I Loved” is very empathetic and wise about what young women, straight or lesbian, have to put up with every day; there’s no need to build further obstacles that seem ripped from a soap opera to illustrate that.