Warning for discussions of sexual violence in First Girl I Loved.
First Girl I Loved is a 2016 coming-of-age film directed by Kerem Sanga which follows Anne (Dylan Gelula), a 17-year-old who falls for a girl named Sasha (Brianna Hildebrand) and begins to discover her identity as a lesbian. This process is made more difficult by her best friend Clifton (Mateo Arias), who, out of his romantic feelings for Anne, does his best to get in the way of this budding relationship. Though well-intended, First Girl I Loved suffers from serious missteps in an effort to tell an honest story of sexuality and identity.
First Girl I Loved does have good intentions--for the most part. If the story were to focus more on Anne as an individual as opposed to her relationship with Clifton, it may have been an overall better film. As it is, First Girl I Loved gives off confusing and at times offensive messages, with a glorified male character at the center of it all.
First Girl I Loved should, by all means, be solely about the journey to discover sexuality and identity. Though Clifton acts as an antagonist for much of the film, by the end he is meant to be forgiven, both by Anne and by the audience. This is difficult to do, however--towards the beginning of the film, there is a brutal and off putting scene in which Clifton, in his insistence to get Anne to return feelings for him, rapes the girl despite her efforts to stop him. After this, Anne comes clean and tells Clifton that she is crushing on a girl, to which his reaction becomes even more violent and negative.
It is impossible to sympathize with Clifton, as he spends the entirety of the movie spewing homophobic slurs at Anne and doing his best to sabotage his friend’s life in an effort to get her to come back to him and love him instead. This could have been eradicated from the film, or at the very least given less of a spotlight in the overall story--but as it is, Clifton’s newfound hatred for Anne is one of the central storylines of the entire film, at times more so than the story between Anne and Sasha.
Where First Girl I Loved really falters is the ending, in which Clifton, after all of his hatred, is the only person to sympathize with Anne after she has her heart broken by Sasha, who denies ever caring for Anne after her parents discover their relationship. Though this could be used as an opportunity to show the impact that homophobic parents can have on their children’s lives and to show a girl so repressed that she denies a vital part of who she is, Sasha is instead made to be seen as the bad guy, whereas Clifton is now the good guy. It’s a complete 180, and the film’s desperate attempt to make the worst character realize his mistakes and change for the better feels hollow. There is no saving Clifton after what he has done, contrary to what the director believes--people who have committed the acts that he has do not deserve forgiveness, especially by those they have hurt.
First Girl I Loved can be read in part as a redemption story for Clifton. The film would greatly improve if, instead of focusing so much on this storyline, it kept its focus on Anne’s journey of discovering her sexuality and coming into her identity. When the film does focus on her character, it thrives--but when it doesn’t, it falls short of being something amazing. Anne’s character is the only well-developed one in the story, and is the only reason the film is worth watching. Sasha’s development isn’t explored in enough depth, and Clifton’s character brings the story to a sudden halt every time he is on screen.
It is Anne that makes the story what it is, and Anne that should be focused on. She does not need to forgive Clifton at the end, nor does she need to rekindle her friendship with him. If this element were to be taken out of the film, it would be a much stronger story that would resonate more with those coming to terms with their identity.
Despite its glaring flaws, First Girl I Loved is not entirely undeserving of a watch. For people who can handle the more difficult aspects of the story and graphic scenes, it is worth looking into. It’s not a film worthy of rewatch, but it may still resonate somewhat with those who need a story like this. It is a genuine, if flimsy attempt at a coming-of-age tale. Were the film to be directed by someone with experiences more similar to Anne, it would likely be more powerful--as it is, it feels like a man’s perspective of what it means to come to terms with your identity as a lesbian.
First Girl I Loved is available to rent on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, and YouTube.