Content warning: discusses sexual assault & contains spoilers
Winner of the 2016 Sundance NEXT Audience Award, First Girl I Loved is no ordinary coming of age film. It’s ability to be so incredibly relatable and simultaneously unique is where it’s magic lies. It also tackles some really difficult topics including consent, teenage sexuality and coming out as gay. As well as tackling these emotionally heavy topics, it is also a cinematically beautiful film.
Directed by Kerem Sanga, the film follows protagonist Anne (Dylan Gelula), the school newspaper editor, as she explores her sexual identity. She falls for the school’s star athlete, Sasha (Brianna Hildebrand). Needless to say conflicts arise, involving the school, the parents and Anne’s former best friend Cliff (Mateo Arias), demonstrating that though it may be more subtle and de-normalised within their community in LA, homophobia is still a very real issue.
It is incredibly refreshing to see a queer relationship evolve on screen without it being fetishized or over-sexualised, which is so often the case with lesbian representation in film. The characters are awkward, confused and self-conscious. They’re not treated as objects, instead they’re realised fully as human beings. It’s sad that the film industry has so often failed that basic lowest bar of representing women as people. Congratulations Kerem Sanga for not just meeting that bar, but exceeding so far that we feel as if we are right there with the characters, feeling each emotion alongside them. There’s something to be said for a male director who can so acutely portray the world from a teenage girl’s perspective.
Though the focus of the film is the relationship between the two girls, it also very cleverly and accurately represents the issues around consent that are so rampant in our society. At the beginning of the film, Anne reveals to her best friend Cliff that she has feelings for a softball player at their school. Through flashbacks we return to this scene at various stages in the film. At first Cliff, who is initially introduced as a sympathetic, comedic character, laughs at Anne’s confession believing she is mistaken because ‘guys play baseball, not softball’ and that ‘girls don’t know anything about sports’. Here we get glimpses into his subtly sexist nature.
After this conversation something seems to have shifted in Anne and Cliff’s friendship but the audience is not exactly sure what it is yet. When we return to that scene Cliff appears jealous of Anne’s crush and confesses his affection for her. He then forces himself onto her, in what is the most painful scene of the film. He is so driven by his own ego and thoughts that he seems not to notice – or not want to notice – Anne’s obvious discomfort and resistance. This is not a simple misunderstanding; this is assault.
Perhaps what is most painful about this scene is how realistic it is. We are taught to be afraid of strangers hiding in dark alleyways, but rarely do we hear the statistics stating that it is most likely someone we know – a partner, a colleague, a friend – who will hurt us. We don’t want to believe that Cliff would betray his friendship with Anne so entirely, because we don’t want to believe that of the men in our own lives. There is a real sense of entitlement reeking from Cliff, as he proceeds to whinge about all the time he “wasted” on Anne by being friends with her, because if a male is nice to a female she is expected to repay him with sexual favours. Obviously. (The friendzone doesn’t exist Cliff, get over it.)
In this scene, the director makes an important comment on the widespread confusion around the concept of consent. It is should be straightforward; yes or no. Cliff’s neglection to confirm consent (and Anne’s confusion of what is happening) reveal the serious lack of adequate sex education available for teenagers. Though the film is American, this is also a significant problem in Australia, with less than 2% of women aged 16-21 rating their experience of sex education in school as excellent and nearly 50% rating their experience as poor, according to a national survey conducted by The Young Women’s Advisory Group. Whether it’s intended or not, The First Girl I Loved admirably contributes to filling this educational gap.
Another failing of the sex education system in Australia is its exclusion of LGBTIQ experiences. In the same survey conducted by YWAG in 2015, over 90% of young women said that their formal sex education did not discuss lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer identities and relationships. The case is similar in the film industry too, as the GLAAD’s 2016 Studio Responsibility Index reported 17.5% of major studio releases had queer characters, of which 23% were women, meaning that about 4% of all characters were queer women. So basically the need for this film is pressing, and everyone would benefit from seeing it. (And despite all the turbulence I’ve mentioned, it is a highly enjoyable film!) With it’s honest depiction of sexuality, consent and coming of age, this film is one not to be missed.
The First Girl I Loved is now showing at cinemas in various locations across Australia – make sure you check it out!
Maddy Crehan is a Social Media Officer at the Victorian Women’s Trust, currently working on Rosie, a space where young women can connect with the best web resources out there, helping them to navigate life’s tricky situations. Rosie has a range of tips, links and videos all centered around a theme of respect – for your body & mind, in your relationships, at work and for the world we live in.