REVIEW: My First Summer (BFI Flare 2021)
A hidden house in the woods, sparkly bracelets and coffee with marshmallows – what more could you ask for from a delicate coming-of-age story? My First Summer takes you to rural Australia merely days after tragedy has struck in a local stream, and follows the blossoming relationship between Claudia (Markella Kavenagh) and Grace (Maiah Stewardson). For a debut feature, writer/director Katie Found does well to convey the beauty and the difficulties of navigating female adolescence without the presence of a nurturing older figure to bring them comfort.
Claudia, as of where the story begins, lives alone with her dog in a gorgeous house deep in the woods, not far from a recent crime scene that took place by the waterfront. Grace, a local girl, eccentric but a keen lone explorer, is the only witness of the fatality that took place, other than Claudia who, in the eyes of the law, does not exist. She has lived out in the woods her whole life, raised solely by her mother and famous author Veronica Fox, who has left Claudia and the house behind. Claudia doesn’t seem to have any experience socialising with the outside world, and who better to stumble across her home than Grace? Naturally concerned about what happened at the reservoir prior to their official meeting, Grace makes an effort to check in on Claudia, bringing her sweets, posters for her room and her bracelet making kit in hopes that she will become more open around her. It is hard to say how far her nurturing goes and where her curiosity begins, as both girls begin to develop a magnetic pull towards one another, leaving the audience to indulge in the budding bond between them.
These slow-paced scenes of the two girls beginning to trust each other is intercut with calming natural imagery and voiceovers from Claudia, poetic and soft. These have the effect of freezing the narrative in its tracks to portray serenity and her search for peace throughout her grieving process. She has a few battles with breakdowns triggered by her PTSD, leaving her disorientated, defensive, distraught. She is also learning how to process feelings that she has never experienced before, making her openness with Grace that more touching. From a lesser actor, the character of Claudia is likely to come across as imbalanced or hysterical but Kavenagh’s portrayal is multifaceted, carrying the weight of the role with seemingly little effort. Stewardson’s performance is impressive, too, and their dynamic truly is impressive enough to shy away from moments lacking a strong sense of substance.
One of the most eye-catching things about My First Summer is the aesthetics of the piece, especially celebrated through Grace’s jewelry and fashion taste. Her style is very bubblegum-pop meets early 2000s, and her look helps to encourage further intrigue to her character and acts as a sickly sweet reminder about how young these girls are, and although they both reel from experiences caused by the adults in their life, they deserve to relish in all the sweetness life and new experiences have to offer them. Grace’s sweet treats act as a great symbol towards Claudia acting on her urge to enjoy life and to embrace the sweetness of those around her, to not be afraid of all the possibilities life has to offer.
Mirroring their slow burn romance, the soundtrack is gentle, bursting with contemporary synth-pop and soft melodies, with the potential to make you long for these magical summery days, undisturbed by the concrete jungle or the passing of time. Grace is eager to help Claudia open up and face her newfound fears of water, a common theme throughout the piece. When facing her fears you are immersed in the celestial melodies that accompany her breakthrough, affirming the film as a heartwarming attempt of showcasing a young woman navigating through her trauma.
While My First Summer may not be a groundbreaking love story, it is one treated with delicacy and genuine affection, and does so in a way that coincides successfully with Claudia coming to terms with her grief. It does not force either narrative upon you or give you an ending wrapped up in a bow, but is a heartwarming watch full of deep and pure emotion. The concept is simple and well executed, and the stakes are high enough to keep you engaged, even if the script can be slightly wooden at points. It is a sickly sweet attempt at a queer coming-of-age, and hopefully one that gains enough buzz for Found to pursue other feature-length endeavours.