Anne (Dylan Gelula) is kind of raggedy and unformed. Her neck hangs in a semi-permanent hunch, and her lips are always slightly open, as though she’s constantly looking for a word that she just can’t seem to find. A blue streak runs through her matted brown hair, which sometimes knots into a handful of dreadlocks that dangle off to one side. She’s 17, a virgin, and she’s about to fall in love for the first time. Sasha (Brianna Hildebrand, unrecognizable from her “Deadpool” breakthrough as Negasonic Teenage Warhead ) is a different story — she practically sparkles. The star of her high school’s softball team, she’s prim and proper, with dimples riveted deep into each cheek. She’s also probably a virgin, but Sasha’s not the type of person to talk about such things in public.
Of course, being 17 often means not knowing what type of person you are quite yet, and one of the most compelling things about Karem Sanga’s raw and emotionally radiant “First Girl I Loved” is how well it captures the heart-pounding terror of becoming someone, the one-way nausea of committing to yourself. From the instant that Anne locks eyes with Sasha at one of her games — and even during some of the clunkier moments that crowd out the movie’s needlessly complicated middle section — this is a fresh and exciting film that remembers what it feels like to fall in love with the first time, and leverages the nascent queerness of its characters in order to amplify that sense of being ambushed by your own emotions.
It has clearly never occurred to Anne that she might have romantic interest in other women, and it has even more clearly never occurred to her best friend Clifton (Mateo Arias), who is harboring the most poorly hidden crush in the history of high schoolers. It isn’t easy for Anne to tell Clifton that she likes Sasha, and it isn’t easy for him to hear it. In a scene that Sanga inadvisedly revisits and expands throughout the film, stretching the drama instead of deepening it, Clifton cycles through all of the most insecure and inappropriate possible reactions to the news, confirming Anne’s reluctance to embrace her feelings or share them with anyone else. Even in 2016, when the stigma of being queer has been greatly reduced in the sun-dappled suburbs of Southern California, coming out can be a tricky proposition — teens may not worry as much about homophobia, but they still feel defined by their friends and social circles, and anything that risks troubling those waters can be terrifying.
Clifton is proof of that. He feels useless. His initial response is bad (“I can’t believe how much fucking time I wasted on you!”) and his subsequent replies are even worse, so much so that it becomes distractingly difficult to imagine how he and Anne became friends in the first place. Wounded but ultimately well-intentioned, Clifton becomes the villain in a film that doesn’t need one, forcing plot onto a love story that otherwise unfolds with the awkwardness and anxiety of real life.
But if Sanga isn’t quite sure what to do with Arias’ complex and pained performance, he works wonders with his other leads. Each of the scenes between Anne and Sasha is perfect in its own way, as both of the actresses vividly captures the pressure of trying to perform an identity that’s still in the process of being forged. Woozily shot in soft light draped in a delicate synth score, and inflected with several killer moments during which Anne and Sasha exchange desperate looks by staring directly into the camera (as though being honest with each other in a way they had never been able to be honest with themselves), the film captures the fervid blush of first love as well as any movie ever has.
Anne and Sasha nervously compliment each other and rush to point out their own flaws; they come up with silly inside jokes and then mulch them into nothingness. They sext at one point, but both girls are so far out to sea that even their most heated flirtations are glazed with sweetness. Sanga’s script smartly avoids melodrama every step of the way — this isn’t a story about soulmates so much as it’s one about two people who help each other realize that they may have been looking for themselves in the wrong place. That moment at the softball game isn’t just when Anne first notices Sasha, it’s when her life begins.
Gelula, best known as the spoiled Xanthippe in “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” is absolutely sensational, and only gets better as her character’s burgeoning confidence begins to clash with the erosion of the world around her. “I don’t know you, I don’t know what you’re about,” Sasha tells Anne after their first kiss, and we immediately understand the thunderstruck expression those words cut across Galula’s face: Here is someone who — for the first time in her life — knows exactly what she’s about, and you better believe she’s not going to hide it from herself or from the first girl she loves.
Sanga doesn’t always clear the best path for his protagonist’s self-discovery, particularly in he film’s plot-heavy second half, but it’s still a thrill to watch Anne get where she’s going. Between “First Girl I Loved” and “The Edge of Seventeen,” it’s starting to seem like we just might be riding a new (and long overdue) wave a of smart, vibrant, essential new high school movies. Here’s hoping.
“First Girl I Loved” is now available on iTunes and VOD.