BFI Flare 2021: My First Summer Review
A yellow dress sinking into dark water. A length of police tape fluttering from a tree. From these glimpses of an unnamed trauma, debut writer and director Katie Found builds a very unconventional love story between two girls. When one’s narrow world is shattered by the death of her mother and sole companion, another steps into the void - but their hidden sanctuary and whirlwind romance are under constant threat.
In rural Australia, Grace (Maiah Stewardson) visits a remote reservoir, the site of a local writer’s suicide. Nearby, she discovers not only the home of the woman, but the daughter she left behind, another 16-year old girl named Claudia (Markella Kavenagh). Unknown to the authorities, Claudia has been hiding out since her mother Veronica’s death - her mother raised her alone, and Claudia’s been confined to the house her whole life. Instead of alerting an adult, none of whom Grace trusts or even likes, she begins a tentative, faltering friendship with the lost girl.
We quickly learn that Claudia’s sheltered upbringing hasn’t equipped her for the arrival of the impulsive Grace. There couldn’t be a deeper contrast between Claudia’s practical homestead wardrobe and Grace’s pink tutu, checks, colourful bracelets and chic pom pom earrings. Their friendship is instructive for Claudia - she’s been raised on Virginia Woolf and the poetry of Lesbia Harford, but has never been further than the reservoir, and her understanding of the world is stunted. “My mother said the fences were the walls of her womb”, Claudia shares to Grace. It’s clear that her world was stunted by her mother before it was ripped away entirely. Kavenagh’s wide-eyed performance as Claudia, a girl who only knows what she’s been permitted to, is note-perfect.
That reclusive upbringing means Grace easily replaces Claudia’s mother as her only friend and protector, the pair bound together by their shared complicity and Claudia’s dependency. When they share a bedroom (the same one in which Claudia and her mother slept in two single beds), or when Grace bathes Claudia, Found lets us sit with the uneasy implications of it all. The girls finally begin a romantic and sexual relationship: it’s moving and beautiful, but there are no simple answers.
As the local police continue to circle the house, visions of Claudia’s mother’s death come to the surface again, and she imagines her mother pushing her towards the same fate. “You’re nearly there”, she tells her daughter in a reverie, as she stands next to the deep water. When Claudia recalls her mother telling her that "nothing but pain" exists outside the house, it’s heavy stuff - we’re not allowed to forget just how much of Claudia’s world was built on cruelty.
That heaviness is offset somewhat by the film’s unique and attractive ambience. Matthew Chuang’s gauzy, lush cinematography conveys the cloistered atmosphere of Claudia and Grace’s world. Shots are often obscured by foliage, as nature builds a wall around our protagonists and the metaphorical womb described by Veronica becomes literal. The evocative photography and bucolic scenery is paired with a naturalistic soundscape of birds and insects. It’s somewhat like a dream, or a memory: inadvertently, My First Summer recalls the high-end perfume commercials which have stolen their sunbleached aesthetic from indie movies like this.
Eschewing the bookshelves which Veronica left behind, Grace introduces Claudia to icons like Tavi Gevinson, Joan Didion and Beyonce, pictures of which she affixes to their bedroom walls. Besides that, adults are very much on the periphery here: Grace has no use for them, and excludes them from her relationship with Claudia. Like Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures, this is a story where two teen girls build a more pleasing and tolerant world for themselves - one where icons replace parents, milk is strawberry flavoured and marshmallows go with black coffee. That mix of sweet and bitter sums up the film itself.
The film's slight 80-minute runtime matches its subject perfectly, as Claudia and Grace experience the ephemeral nature of first love and heartbreak together. As the girls head towards the end of summer, however, there’s a sense of inevitability to the film’s conclusion that seems to arrive as a necessity of the dwindling runtime, rather than the dramatic momentum of the story and the dreadful passage of time. It’s one of the few missteps the film makes. Elsewhere, the needle drops chosen for the soundtrack sit curiously alongside the film we’re watching: they seem to have been picked for a less nuanced film.
My First Summer has a great deal to say about not only coming of age, but the construction of female identity - but it’s rarely heavy-handed. It’s an open-hearted film, a gorgeous love story, and an auspicious debut for director Katie Found.