Towards the end of Katie Found’s newest film, My First Summer, her two lead protagonists bond over a shared breakfast, romanticising a future in which they will sit out in the sun every morning, read the newspaper and drink black coffee in complete satisfaction with life. Despite having never tried the drink before, the two girls take large sips of the black inky liquid, expecting to taste that idyllic future they dream of. However, greeted by the drink’s sharp bitterness, they spit it out immediately in complete disgust. Out of sugar lumps but in need of a way to make the coffee sweeter, they use marshmallows to mask the taste. In a snapshot, this is what My First Summer aims to achieve; it’s an exercise in covering up bitterness with an excessive amount of sugar.
Out riding her bike one day, Grace’s (Maiah Stewardson) world changes forever when she sees two women walk into a lake. One of these girls, sixteen-year-old Claudia (Markella Kavenagh), emerges from the lake alive. However, her mother, the famous novelist Veronica Fox (Edwina Wren), does not. Having been completely isolated from the outside world, nobody aside from an ageing dog named Tilly knows of Claudia’s existence. That is until Grace, wearing a bubblegum pink skirt and pompom earrings, stumbles onto her secluded house that lies just outside of the nearby City’s limits. Though she is untrusting of her at first, Grace soon infiltrates Claudia’s isolated little world, and the pair spend one perfect summer in each other’s company. Their instant friendship soon blossoms into romantic infatuation, and they wallow in the sunshine, letting themselves explore their attraction utterly uninterrupted by the outside interference of parents and police officers.
There’s a lot to like about My First Summer; it’s easy to get lost in the gentle and innocent relationship the two girls forge with one another. Although simple and of this world, Claudia’s house and the surrounding woodland takes on a fantastical element, and the film almost feels like a trip into The Secret Garden or Narnia. Alone in the sun-baked forest and academically decorated house, the two girls are allowed to bask in their femininity and create a protective space that accommodates all things girly. Claudia is utterly naive of the outside world, having been sheltered from it her entire life, and now, with her mother gone, she cannot risk leaving her home at all, as one of the police officers investigating her mother’s suicide is sure to take her away. So, Grace brings the outside world to Claudia, ferrying in gifts of sweets, glittery eyeshadows, lip-gloss, strawberry milk and friendship bracelets for them to enjoy together as they spend their hot summer days falling in love.
There’s a genuine sense of beauty in the girl’s relationship witch Found crafts with a tender touch. However, delivered through a vivid cutesy and bubblegum lens, the film frequently starts to feel uncomfortable. Despite being sixteen-years-old, both girls dress, speak and act significantly younger; this would be fine if the script centred around childhood and innocence, but Found’s writing specifically focuses on sexualising these girls: they share a bath on their first day of knowing one another; Grace swims in frilly, infantile pink underwear; they each wear plastic friendship bracelets and outfits which wouldn’t be out of place on a toddler. Eventually, the girls morph into something close to hyper-sexualised anime characters with a babyish Tumblr aesthetic.
To an extent, the film achieves a form of magical realism that works to suspend the effects of grief and trauma that run as an undercurrent to the pair’s romance. However, the film dances on the edge of darkness one time too often, and although Found attempts to cover up the film’s darker themes with a sprinkle of glitter here and there, the effect can often feel fairly ignorant. ‘The only way to get over a fear is to face it’ Grace calls to Claudia, as she encourages her to swim in the lake where her mother committed suicide only a few days prior. Although this statement is true to a certain extent, it tends to work better on the fear of something like spiders, heights or flying on an aeroplane. The film fails to define the dimensions of its magical summertime world, meaning many elements of the film fail to gel, caught in limbo between the real world and an overly sugar-coated reality. For example, Grace is intelligent enough to know the writing of Joan Didion and consider her a hero, but she isn’t astute enough to recognise that her friend is suffering from the lingering effects of severe trauma. Instead of seeking help, Grace fixes all of Claudia’s problems by teaching her breathing techniques.
It’s fair to say that the film’s heart is in the right place, and it genuinely creates a moving portrait of young love. The two young leads are particularly strong, drawing us in further and further as they tenderly navigate their blossoming sexualities. The film’s slow pace and lack of aggression are gentle and comforting, and the overall tone creates a relaxed and welcoming environment. However, My First Summer would have benefited from further definition. Overall the film focuses too heavily on aesthetic, which creates significant problems that stop us from drifting away into a cute and enticing summer of love.
Dir: Katie Found
Scr: Katie Found
Cast: Edwina Wren, Maiah Stewardson, Markella Kavenagh
DOP: Matthew Chuang
Runtime: 80 minutes
My First Summer will screen as part of the 2021 BFI Flare Festival on March 17th 2021