‘My First Summer’ Is A Surreal Yet Wholesome Teen Romance: BFI Flare Review

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Markella Kavenagh, Maiah Stewardson inmy first summer bfi

My First Summer was just one of many excellent productions on offer at this year’s BFI Flare festival. Yet writer-director Katie Found’s debut feature really stands out from the crowd, mainly because of just how beautiful the Australian production is.

This film is (almost) everything a teen romance should be: sweet, wholesome, grounded in the reality of growing up, a touch of humour, a heavy dose of drama and a compelling main couple. My First Summer is slightly surreal, almost fairy tale–esque, yet still an oddly authentic portrayal of the simultaneous bliss and agony of young, inexperienced love. 

My First Summer begins with the teenage Claudia (Markella Kavenagh) who has been living a totally isolated, cabin-in-the-woods existence with her reclusive mother Veronica (Edwina Wren). That is until her mother, who also happens to be the only other human who even knows she exists, tragically drowns. Then suddenly along comes Grace (Maiah Stewardson), who in some ways comes across as a queer feminist reclaiming of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl: confident, optimistic, more worldly-wise than her love interest, yet simultaneously having a somewhat ethereal quality, unusual dress sense and all. And in the same way that this character is usually some kind of guiding light for the male protagonist, Grace becomes Claudia’s guide to something at least vaguely resembling a normal life—albeit while still having her own character development and inner life, a privilege which the Dream Girl (and her Black counterpart, the Magical Negro) are rarely granted.

Naturally, this also includes both girls discovering all the blushes, exploration and angst that comes with a good old-fashioned teen romance. Yet with Claudia’s bereavement hanging over her—and resulting in a creeping threat from the well-meaning authorities—things become heartbreakingly difficult horribly quickly as grief, trauma and mental illness all threaten to destroy their homemade paradise. These increasingly dark themes (in particular, the circumstances surrounding Veronica’s death are far more disturbing than they first seem) are counterbalanced throughout My First Summer, in agonising harmony with the wholesome sweetness of the girls’ budding romance.

The two leads’ performances, to put it simply, were exquisite. Kavenagh and Stewardson are both, without fail, funny, sympathetic and believable, and it takes very little suspension of disbelief to ‘ship’ their characters from their first meeting onwards. 

Kavenagh undoubtedly has the hardest task: after all, while most of us know what a teenage crush feels like, most of us haven’t undergone any experiences remotely similar to Claudia’s. Yet she does a masterful job, perfectly capturing the odd quirks and cute naïveté that one might expect of her cloistered character, as well as her increasingly fragile mental state. If Kavenagh has a flaw it’s that her performance, by default, frequently overshadows Stewardson’s. Grace simply isn’t as attention-grabbing as Claudia, mainly because she’s just so much more normal. But this is in no way a criticism of Stewardson, who fulfils her role wonderfully. Through her, Grace is bold, assertive, streetwise—everything poor Claudia isn’t—and full of obvious compassion. That part’s important, as the power dynamic between the two could become worryingly one-sided in the wrong hands. But Stewardson’s excellent performance, along with Found’s screenplay, safely avoids any abuse of that power. Between this and the actors’ highly charged yet tender, gentle chemistry, the worst you can say about Grace is that she’s blatantly ill-equipped to handle Claudia and her many inescapable issues. 

Not to mention, Matthew Chuang’s cinematography—including plenty of hushed, intimate close-ups, of course—is as beautiful as the production design. Claudia’s home in particular appears as a sun-dappled paradise brimming with fresh air and birdsong, albeit one that becomes increasingly sterile and stifling as Found’s screenplay builds to its climax.

The only real issue with My First Summer is that, frankly, it’s too short. In particular, the set-up is over far too quickly. Many viewers would doubtless appreciate an establishing scene or two to show Claudia’s lonely existence and her relationship with her mother. Yet instead, we’re plunged straight into the immediate aftermath of Veronica’s death—and then boom, along comes Grace. Watching this film is rather like trying to savour a piece of chocolate in your mouth: despite your best efforts, it’s all gone before you know it. That said, the climax was very nicely-paced, and is sure to leave viewers with their hearts in their mouths. In any case, such issues shouldn’t put viewers off of sampling what is sure to become, for many, a fondly remembered watch.

The Verdict

Despite some minor shortcomings, My First Summer is an excellent debut that Found can look back on with genuine pride. It’s a beautiful, intimate and touching coming-of-age fairytale, and one bolstered by enchanting performances from its two leads.

Rating: 8/10

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