“First Girl I Loved” Review: An Awkward, Hilarious Queer Coming of Age Film

Warning: This review contains minor spoilers and plot details. 

Remember when you were in high school and you were weird and awkward and had a million feelings you didn’t understand and couldn’t control? First Girl I Loved, the new movie from Karem Sanga, explores those feelings in a rich, nuanced, sometimes uncomfortably accurate way. First Girl I Loved tells the story of Anne, an outsider at her high school, who falls for the star of her school’s softball team, Sasha Basañez. It’s often funny, sometimes sad and frightening, and almost always relatable.

I saw First Girl I Loved at Outfest and could feel the queer women around me collectively relating to so much of it, thanks in large part to performances by Brianna Hildebrand (Sasha) and Dylan Gelula (Anne). They seemed like real high school girls: weird, awkward, funny, full of energy and angst. Anne just wants her mom to leave her alone and lies about having a car to impress the girl she likes. Sasha is bright-eyed and over-achieving, but deep down she’s really self-conscious about how the other kids at school think about her. Both girls are obsessed with texting and fill their conversations with jokes and half-sentences. They feel so real.

Dylan Gelula as Anne.

Dylan Gelula as Anne.

Brianna Hildebrand as Sasha.

Brianna Hildebrand as Sasha.

If you’re a fan of movies like Mosquita y Mari or books like The Miseducation of Cameron Post, you’ll probably love this movie. The themes it explores are similar to so many of our favorite coming of age stories: friendships and identity and queerness and being almost-but-not-quite-sure of your feelings.

One of the things that sets First Girl I Loved apart is that one of the leads is Latina. The movie takes place in LA, and while Anne is white, many of the other characters, including Sasha and Clif, Anne’s best friend, are people of color. I wish Sasha’s family had been handled a little differently; they were portrayed pretty stereotypically with regard to their daughter’s sexuality, but it’s always refreshing to see Latinxs in film, especially in a queer love story.

First Girl I Loved isn’t perfect. It has a few bumps here and there, largely, I think, because it was written and directed by a straight man. There’s an out-of-nowhere storyline where Anne’s “best friend” rapes her and then says she was leading him on and it’s not fair, and continued questions about consent span the rest of the film. It’s not exactly what I’d call a happy movie, but I can tell you this: no lesbians die in it!

What makes me most excited about First Girl I Loved is what it signals for the future of movies about queer girls and women. If this is the kind of queer cinema we’re getting from straight men, imagine how great it will be when straight and queer women are given more chances to write and direct.

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Renown writer and queer woman Carrie Wade, who saw the movie with me, felt similarly about the male writer and director’s influence on the film. Her thoughts are below:

I enjoyed a lot of things about it, and thought they handled some tricky scenes very creatively and delicately. And of course the “I like you” confession at totally the wrong time just made us all instantly revert back to our high school selves and die. So there was a lot to relate to. But it really disappointed me that Clif, who I hoped would be a much needed illustration of a straight guy who supports his queer lady best friend through a crucial time (when do we ever get to see that?), turned out to be a creeper and, y’know, a rapist. That felt like such a missed opportunity.

Because instead of showing us a really rare and meaningful dynamic, we just get “oh right, men and women can’t really be friends because he’s just been in love with her the whole time” AGAIN. And it ultimately made a big part of the movie Nice Guy Commits Crime, Feels Bad About It, which I’m not too interested in seeing. Parts of it also felt a little sensationalized, and I wish we could move past relying on the dangers of social media as a major plot device. I feel like in the back half of the movie, particularly, there were some chances to make bold and different choices that ultimately went by the wayside, and that was a bummer because the lead performances were all so strong. It deserved better than what it ended up being.

First Girl I Loved is earnest and awkward, hilarious and touching. While it doesn’t quite reach the level it aspires to, it’s still a huge step forward from the sad or just plain bad stories we’re used to seeing on the silver screen.

It is is currently screening at LGBT film festivals.

Mey Valdivia Rude is a bisexual Latina trans woman living in Los Angeles. She's a writer, comic consultant and a trans activist. She's a bruja, a femme, a pop princess and she loves comic books, witches, dinosaurs and crying. She has a cat named Sawyer and a very successful twitter.

Mey has written 574 articles for us.

16 Comments

    • Vastly, vastly more realistic. I love 2 Girls (which was vital in my early 90s baby queerhood), but I think of it as a technicolor, larger-than-life fantasy.

      This one is in the tradition of hyper-realistic teen coming-of-age stories; the teens actually act like real teenagers, with all their immaturities, instead of the idealized versions of teens you usually see in US media. They masturbate; they express their anger and hurt feelings in passive-aggressive and unhelpful ways, even when entirely justified; they fight with their parents.

      And while 2 Girls is definitely a romance, this is much more of a character study of three very different teens, Anne, Sasha, and Clif, two of whom happen to be girls having an awkward teen relationship. This review downplays the importance of the kids’ relationships to their parents, but we learn a lot about the characters through Anne’s relationship with her single divorced disabled mom and Clif’s to his grandmother. There’s also some attempt at a Rashoman-like structure, so you see the story from each of the 3 main characters’ POV.

      This one is probably a better film than 2 Girls, but 2 Girls was more interested in imagining a road map for young queer girls and this film is about reflecting the messy reality of teen life.

  1. I was honored to sit next to you during this, and as usual you hit the nail on the head here. Especially “If this is the kind of queer cinema we’re getting from straight men, imagine how great it will be when straight and queer women are given more chances to write and direct.” YUP YUP YUPPPP. <3

  2. I have a huge crush on Dylan Gelula and I’m glad to hear she’s continuing to kiss girls on my screen. (Is anyone else watching her arc on Casual? Too soon to say where it will go, and I am ever trepidatious, but so far I’m liking it. On account of her face. And how she uses it to kiss girls.)

  3. I always try to see the queer stuff at Sundance, and I am happy I caught this one. I basically refused to sympathize with Clif even though that’s what it was leaning into. Like okay you’re awful and maybe you feel bad about it but this is not your story bye.

  4. Has anyone seen the French comedy The Spanish Apartment (L’auberge espagnole)? It had a friendship between a straight man and a gay woman that I really enjoyed. They’re not as young, the lesbian doesn’t really need any support, the straight guy is a bit of a tool but they have a nice bond that isn’t about him wanting more. Both of them cheat on their partners while studing overseas but so does every other character in the film. In the much weaker sequels, she poses as his girlfriend when he (single) needs a beard to show his dying grandfather, and he later donates sperm for her partner (not the old-fashioned way).

  5. I wanted to see this until I read about the rape – so thank you for including that spoiler!!!! I may still see it, but with a shit ton more self care set up.

    • In the interest of helping your self-care: the rape in this film is very realistic, in that it’s presented as ambiguous sex between teens who don’t yet have the maturity to communicate clearly about consent. You the viewer realize during the scene that Anne hasn’t really consented and like many women doesn’t feel she can say no, while Clif’s whole story arc for the rest of the film is realizing that the sex he thought was consensual was actually rape.

      So the rape itself is not at all violent or explicit, because the filmmaker is making the point that non-violent, ambiguous sex is actually rape, and trying to start a conversation about consent among teens. I respect this intention a lot, and given the point being made I didn’t resent Clif’s screen time. I also thought his attempt to redeem himself later proved he was an idiot instead of making us think, “Oh what a nice guy!”; what I took issue with was the false rape accusation made later, which didn’t get as much screen time.

      All this may make it better or worse for you, depending; I hate representations of rape and found this one unexpectedly easy to handle. Hope this helps with your self-care!

  6. I really enjoyed this film when it screened in Boston! It’s so well-made.

    I do think this review downplays just how invested the film is in starting a conversation about consent among teens; the whole point of the rape and Clay’s arc is that ambiguous sex that doesn’t look like what we think of as rape is rape. This is the first film I’ve ever seen take that on, and I really appreciated it. Though part of me wishes that if they were going to tell that story, all three leads were girls and it actually dealt with woman-on-woman rape, which we still are deep denial about and which is so important (especially given the high rates of rape and domestic violence in teen same-sex couples).

    But I found Sasha’s pressure to be a perfect Latina daughter really compelling, especially in the scenes where her parents were off-stage. And I loved the relationship between Anne and her disabled single mom, which felt very real. All of the family relationships for the three leads added a lot for me.

  7. the director actually said so much problematic stuff in the Q&A though! he mentioned that the first time he screened it he didn’t like how people viewed Clif (the rapist!!) because he acted out of misplaced love?!?! and I hate how Clif turns into the ~good guy~ at the end because…he’s still a rapist…and the director said he wrote this because his sister came out to him and he realized that people are still afraid of not being accepted/coming out is something people are worried about(duh?!?!)

    also i wish the ending played out differently and that they discussed ~doing hetero sex stuff because you feel like maybe you’re wrong about your being gay~

  8. I thoroughly enjoyed the film. Whilst the director is problematic I still think that the film is very well made. Although the rape between Cliff and Anne did follow through with a trope I think that there was a reason for having it included. It opens up a conversation about rape and consent. How saying no isn’t necessary always kicking and screaming and that rape can happen between best friends. Even if you’re married that doesn’t entitle you to rape another person. However I don’t understand the reasoning of making Cliff play out as the ‘good guy’ in the end making him seem redeemable (?).

    Also the rape shows the both internal/physical struggle which Anne faces in regards to her coming out. She is being forced to behave in a way which fits in with a hetero normative society, she is being silenced and is overcome with emotions. Her being physically violated by her supposed best friend is the breaking point in which leads her to telling him the truth.

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