Dylan Gelula in "First Girl I Loved"

Sundance ’16 Review: It’s Easy to Fall Hard for Kerem Sanga’s “First Girl I Loved”

It’s love at first sight, and I’m not referring to the first moment in “First Girl I Loved” when Sasha Basanez first catches the eye of Anne, a photographer for the school yearbook, as she bounds up to first base after hitting the single for the school’s softball team, though one can understand why Anne is so enthralled. No, it’s actually seeing Dylan Gelula, the actress playing Anne who connects so instantly with an audience and after two films, it’s clear that director Kerem Sanga is a man of many skills, but perhaps none greater than his eye for casting, making a similar find in his first film, “The Young Kieslowski” when he went again the grain to cast Haley Lu Richardson as a more vulnerable young woman than one would suspect from a sex comedy, and showing a perversity in thinking Adult Swim madman Tim Heidecker would make a good high school guidance counselor in “First Girl I Loved.” (He does.)

In telling a story about a teenager’s first romance that’s consistently more adventurous than most of its ilk, the instantaneous desire to follow Gelula anywhere as she gives a ferocious and completely unguarded performance as its lead goes a long way towards fulfilling the promise of the set-up of “First Girl I Loved,” which in broad terms might be described as a multicultural riff on “Some Kind of Wonderful” with a lesbian twist. While Sanga exhibits the same appreciation for life-or-death stakes of high school as John Hughes, the film is utterly vibrant and modern, with the gay element arguably the least contemporary of its ideas as it cannily plays with time, language and the construction of a love triangle that consistently puts it one step ahead of the audience.

Not long after Anne sets her sights on Sasha (Brianna Hildebrand), a popular girl who is less confident than she looks, she confides in her best friend Cliff (Mateo Arias) that she’s fallen for another, unaware that he has feelings for her and he unaware that she’s talking about a girl. That revelatory scene actually plays out in bits and pieces over the first half of “First Girl I Loved,” taking on a new context each time as Anne actually finds a way to seduce Sasha through a yearbook interview and Cliff hatches plans to annoy Anne by asking Sasha out. What at first seems like petty jealousy is shown later to have grown out of some pretty deep divides amongst the three whose identities aren’t yet fully formed, resulting in rash decisions that leave long-term consequences but feel right in the moment.

Sanga adds nice details throughout that give each character a life outside of their immediate conflict — while parents are rarely seen, they make an immediate impression when they do appear, suggesting the cultural attitudes that informs their children’s behavior, either in deference or rebellion. The film also benefits from a choice soundtrack, a sprightly score from John Swihart and evocative cinematography from Ricardo Diaz, whose sensitive lensing of Anne and Cliff’s aforementioned falling out is somewhat breathtaking. “First Girl I Loved” confirms the promise of Sanga as a distinctive new filmmaking voice and although the central story is a tale as old as time, it’s one of those rare teenage films that gets what that age is like so thoroughly it will likely speak to that audience specifically for generations to come.

“First Girl I Loved” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It will play once more at the Sundance Film Festival on January 29th at 9 pm at the Temple Theatre.

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