Sundance Review: Kerem Sanga's 'First Girl I Loved', Starring Dylan Gelula and Brianna Hildebrand

Being a teenager is one of the most difficult points in any person's life. There are a lot of changes to your body, you're struggling to be someone (sometimes someone you're not) and high school can serve as a cruel small town where everyone knows and gossips about each other. And so this is where writer and director Kerem Sanga draws inspiration from for First Girl I Loved, a film with a new take on a love triangle and narrative storytelling, but one that doesn't feel complete.
Anne (Dylan Gelula) is a junior in high school and already knows that she isn't into boys. Her best friend, Clif (Mateo Arias), doesn't know this and harbors a secret crush on Anne. She, however, likes the school's popular softball player, Sasha (Brianna Hildebrand) and when Clif finds out, he makes it a point to try and sabotage their relationship--a relationship Sasha doesn't know what to make of and is too scared and confused to come face to face with what it might mean to like Anne. But things aren't as easy as they seem, and the more Anne and Clif grow apart, the more she and Sasha grow closer. But when certain choices are made out of spite and to prove a point, the situation grows more complicated than any of the three could imagine.
First Girl I Loved is an original take on the love triangle trope, which is used far too often in cinema. There's the typical he-likes-her-but-she-likes-someone-else ordeal, but instead of going for pure first love, the film branches out into more complicated matters. Matters it isn't always equipped to handle due to lack of time and development, and so it gets more complicated than it ought to given the earlier circumstances. However, Sanga's use of time in non-chronological order works well and creates a "what really happened" feeling once a scene is over, but Sanga always comes back to it.
The performances are strong and really show the potential of the cast. Dylan Gelula, in particular, really gives her all as Anne, portraying her outward confidence, but inward vulnerability and insecurities at exploring new territory, but choosing to be herself even in the wake of her best friend, and even Sasha, turning on her.
First Girl I Loved is an interesting examination into the life of Anne and the two people who surround her. There are several strong aspects to the film that work, particularly the fact that Sanga creates problems outside of a love triangle that have to do with confidence, embarrassment, and facing the reality of oneself in the midst of confusing feelings. The way the film's narrative is laid out is noteworthy, with its nonlinear storytelling. However, not all aspects of the film come together in a way that is fluid. There are parents and school counselors involved and characters change their minds about issues without preamble. The latter part of the film shifts into different territory and changes the ultimate outcome. While this creates a unique situation,and proves Sanga has a lot of potential, certain points could have been developed better.