2021 BFI Flare Festival Festival Coverage Reviews

My First Summer ★★★½

There is something unforgettably nourishing in being witness to creativity. Whether it takes shape as dyeing bed sheets, collaging, bracelet making, or transforming something customary (say, drinking black coffee) into something sweeter (say, adding a marshmallow), My First Summer delights in the very moments devoted to this process: the intimate act of co-creation.

We enter the film through the seclusion of an overgrown forest, home to sixteen-year-old Claudia (Markella Kavenagh) and her late mother. Her death is signified by close-ups of a yellow dress engulfed in a nearby reservoir; much to Claudia’s distress, her mother’s sinking body flickers into frame, cutting into the present. With no experience beyond this idyllic space, Claudia mourns the absence of her only companion. More implicitly, she reckons with the destabilisation incurred by her mother’s death; what is there to life outside of this protected, childhood realm? Turning inward with grief, she unwittingly awaits the possibility of a new arrival, who takes the shape of Grace (Maiah Stewardson), a free-spirited sixteen-year-old who rather surreally chances upon Claudia’s world out of curiosity. 

Grace epitomises an exaggeration of adolescent femininity. She assembles letter bracelets and is herself decorated in all the trappings of girlhood: tutus, oversized earrings, candy necklaces and rings. As her sudden appearance disrupts the bohemia of Claudia’s lifestyle, she brings with her a sense of play; she sweetens the air. 

Instinctively, and at Grace’s request, the two girls spend the summer days together beneath the plum trees. Learning about each other in delicate, gradual doses, they quickly recognise their outward differences manifest in similar ways. Both experience absent parents, literally or emotionally, an idea long-established in queer cinema. The presence of this idea (or rather the absence of adults) does not merely represent those rejected by their parents on the grounds of their homosexuality; it enables the utopian, oneiric realm the girls co-inhabit—that which they created together. 

They bathe, they craft, they sip strawberry milk, they innocently explore each other’s minds and bodies in a way quite novel to the sapphic coming-of-age genre. Unencumbered by external forces, they do not address their sexuality. Their gravitation towards each other is intuitive—as earthly as the dirt beneath their feet, as the fruit they gather.

Their connection is unmistakably tactile, though its precise materialisations evolve throughout the film: through images of flowers, the breath of nature as it rises and falls in slumber, of hands touching. Savouring the impermanence of their self-created world—much like summer, surely the magic is in its inevitable expiry—the two girls come to form two halves of one whole, unimpeded by the threat of their now inconceivable separation.  

Beyond its romantic splendour, My First Summer is visibly inspired by the literature of Virginia Woolf—copies of her novels pepper the mise-en-scène, the death of Claudia’s mother is identical to Woolf’s own suicide, A Room of One’s Own imbues the film’s philosophical impulses. Indeed, Katie Found’s writing and directorship delight in the restorative properties of women-claimed spaces. Infectiously so, and in tandem with the exquisite lead performances, Found relishes in creativity and connection—she lulls us to submerge in the tenderness of her filmmaking: to ‘play, experiment, be colourful, messy and free.’

Seeing Mike Nichols’ The Graduate at a young age established Jessica’s life-long, unequivocal adoration for film. A recent graduate herself, Jessica spent a year of her literature degree in Berlin studying film. It was during this time specifically that she reconciled her love for film and academia. Further to her current occupation researching and musing about films for various publications, Jessica aspires to earn an MA in film and to pursue a career in film academia, especially in the field of aesthetics. Some of her favourite directors include Claudia Weill, Elaine May, Chantal Akerman, Ingmar Bergman, and Agnès Varda.

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