Few films carry the sort of impact that First Girl I Loved does. It’s a story that is at once relatable in its familiarity yet entirely unique in its presentation and themes. It gives us an all-too-brief window into the mind of teenagers in the first throes of love or what they believe to be love, and in the process it takes concepts that its characters are not yet equipped to handle, such as consent and sexuality. Writer-director Karem Sanga has tapped into the unsettling and confusing world of adolescent sexual awakening, but in it he has found something beautiful.

First Girl I Loved is the story of two teenage girls: Anne, a punky photographer for the yearbook, and Sasha, a popular player on the school softball team. Anne falls for Sasha from afar and contrives an interview with her as an excuse to meet and come closer. What develops is the sort of shaky, awkward romantic tension that most of us remember experiencing with our teenage crushes, only further complicated by the fact that neither girl has come out as gay and don’t necessarily understand their own feelings yet—never mind being able to communicate them. This is only further complicated by the presence of Anne’s former best friend Clifton, who seeks to sabotage Anne’s romantic pursuit because he feels rejected.

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The film is simultaneously funny and cute as it is anxiety-inducing and heartbreaking. Sanga here proves himself as a talented writer and director in how he manages to make a film about teenagers feel natural in its awkwardness without ever resorting to an improvisational mumblecore style. All three teenage leads feel complete in their characterization while still leaving room for them to not understand themselves, and their inexperience and inability to communicate is reflected in the ease with which the adults in their lives express abstract ideas that the kids are only just now beginning to comprehend.

That difficulty in communicating translates directly into the film’s most heartwrenching scenes, which involve a forced coming out from one of the girls and a sexual assault that is no less shocking for its lack of graphic detail. This is the type of film where everyone makes stupid mistakes and does shitty things to one another, but their offenses are mostly understandable and potentially forgivable due to the hurt feelings and incomprehension of consequences at play. In other words, the film’s conflicts are built out of the stumbling steps out of childhood into adulthood, and how the inability to articulate those struggles as they are happening is what causes these young adults to hurt themselves and others.

First Girl I Loved closes with a scene that primarily focuses on Anne, leaving Sasha’s and Clifton’s story arcs somewhat unresolved, but that’s how life works sometimes. There isn’t always such a thing as closure, and Anne’s journey of self-acceptance and coming of age is enough plot to sustain a film that is just as much about its universality as it is the lives of its characters. Particularly for LGBT youth, this is a film to which we’re meant to bring our own experiences to the table and think, “I get it. I’ve been there. I’m sorry you have to be there, too.” But even among the pain, there are still the memories of our first loves that stay with us for the rest of our lives, and maybe there’s some solace in that which makes the whole journey worth it.

FILM REVIEW: 'First Girl I Loved'
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Leigh Monson is technically a licensed attorney but somehow thinks being Substream's Film Editor is a lot more fun. Leigh loves both award darlings and hilariously bad films, does not believe in superhero movie fatigue, and calls it like they see it.