In My First Summer by Katie Found, in rural Australia a sheltered teenage girl suffers a devastating loss but is unexpectedly brought to life by a sudden special connection with a fellow teen.
Purple Promisesby Chris Drew
My First Summer
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
My First Summer opens in the aftermath of a harrowing drowning incident at a reservoir: we learn that local teen Grace (Maiah Stewardson, Girl Asleep) was a witness and saw a girl running from the water.
Curious and concerned Grace goes to see the girl – Claudia (Markella Kavenagh, True History of the Kelly Gang) – and finds she has been living an isolated life with her author mother.
Grace is surprised to learn that Claudia knows only her home and the reservoir and is now totally alone, save for Tilly the dog. We discover Claudia’s mother drowned herself after keeping Claudia hidden from society.
Grace soon lies to the police, changing her story about seeing a girl to protect Claudia. She is now the only one who knows Claudia exists.
Grace recognises in Claudia a kindred spirit; brief scenes of her angry mother Donna (Katherine Tonkin, City Homicide) and creepy stepfather Mike (Arthur Angel, Upgrade) paint a picture of her own unhappy isolation.
Claudia’s ethereal nature soon warms as she learns to trust Grace; when Grace says she won’t tell anyone about Claudia and offers a pinky promise, Claudia endearingly asks her what colour the other fingers are.
A deep connection begins to form between the pair despite their many differences; Grace’s make-up, bright bold clothes and large colourful jewellery are a far cry from Claudia’s plain look and wide-eyed innocence.
When Claudia says “I don’t really know how I’m supposed to be feeling” it reveals so much of her character and what the film is about; Claudia does not know how she should be feeling about losing her mother, about her place in the world and about the new friend suddenly at the centre of her life.
Despite moving voiceover about her mother – and seeing her in flashback (Edwina Wray, Elimination Game, is a haunting presence) – Claudia’s grief does not feel like the central focus of the film. This could be down to her wider lack of awareness and understanding of the world, which is where Grace really helps her.
Grace introduces Claudia to the youthful delights of strawberry milk, marshmallows, edible necklaces and having female pop culture icons on the walls. Grace quite literally brings colour into Claudia’s life, a metaphor brought to life when white bed sheets are joyfully dyed purple with plums.
The burgeoning bond between the pair gradually deepens and they kiss sweetly while Claudia guesses the flavours of Grace’s various lip balms. Scenes of them exploring their attraction are tender and genuine.
Much of the film is set outside with the warmth of the character’s blossoming relationship reflected in the constant summer sunshine and the natural beauty of birdsong. In this setting Claudia and Grace create their own separate little world, away from the stresses and strains of the rest of the world that Claudia has yet to discover. How long it will stay that way remains to be seen.
With a cast of just seven, Kavenagh and Stewardson carry the film delivering superbly natural performances and a wonderful chemistry together, creating a sense that their special bond and world must be protected.
My First Summer is a beautifully accomplished feature debut from writer/director Katie Found marking her and both the young leads as Australian talents to watch.
My First Summer is available to screen as part of the 35th BFI Flare: London LGBTIQ+ Film Festival until 28 March as part of the UK-wide digital programme on BFI Player.