Inside Out Review: 'My First Summer' Captures the Confusion and Sweetness of First Love Directed by Katie Found
Starring Markella Kavenagh, Maiah Stewardson
Published Jun 07, 2021For most, the colour yellow signifies happiness, warmth and optimism. But in Katie Found's feature debut, My First Summer, the colour yellow represents a child's loss of a mother. Claudia (Markella Kavenagh) witnesses her mother drown while wearing a yellow dress, and since then, she's felt like she has been sinking deeper and deeper underwater herself — until someone pulls her out. It's a film about soulmates, those who arrive in our lives and make the biggest impact even in a short amount of time. Those who pull us out of the darkness. For Claudia, that's Grace (Maiah Stewardson).
The meaning of yellow shifts. It's the colour of the blanket they lay on while making friendship bracelets; it's the colour of the table cloth during breakfast when Claudia tastes coffee, marshmallows and pancakes for the first time; it's the colour of the bathing suit Grace wears when she helps Claudia conquer her fear of water. It's the colour of the sunlit glow that fills the room when they first kiss. In one of the film's many beautiful scenes, Claudia reads a poem by Lesbia Harford called, "When Day Is Over": "Then my heart breaks through these prison bars," one line reads. Yellow becomes the colour of life and love as two teenage girls experience love for the first time in an Australian summer.
While My First Summer begins with a tragedy, it's not steeped in it. It's not a sapphic film full of drama or a cautionary tale as many are, and it's a sigh of relief for the young queer girls who will discover it.
The film begins with Grace finding a secluded house in the middle of the woods. The night before, she witnessed the drowning of a local author at the reservoir and saw another young girl there, too. She's determined to find her, and when she does, Claudia's frightened, holding onto her dog as tightly as she can. When Grace says, "Your dog is really cute," Claudia's immediate response is, "Don't take her." Claudia is afraid of losing everything, and she asks Grace to promise not to tell anyone about her, especially now that the police are investigating what happened at the reservoir. It's a friendship tied to secrecy, but it's evident from their first interaction that Grace is empathetic and wants to make sure Claudia is okay. As Grace continues to visit, they form a connection that quickly grows into something neither of them has experienced before.
We learn that Claudia is the child of a reclusive author and that's why she has been isolated all this time. Films often explore the tortured artist, but rarely if ever do they explore what it's like to be the child of one. Claudia has never gone further than the reservoir because she was raised to believe that there is nothing but pain out in the world and she would be safer and happier if she were to stay away. She's been so secluded that, at first, she doesn't understand what Grace means when she says "pinky promise." What Grace promises is to be by Claudia's side – to show her the world as it truly is. That, yes, it can be full of pain – as evident by Grace's broken home life and unloving mother – but also that there's love and laughter. The film is incredibly pure and comforting in the way their relationship helps Claudia explore who she really is, find what is true, and learn how to really live for the first time.
My First Summer is a small-budget film that doesn't feel like one. Cinematographer Matthew Chuang's stunning woodland imagery, mixed with a gentle and calming score, creates something that feels so peaceful — like sitting outside with a coffee in the morning, the breeze against your cheek and birdsong drowning out reality. The film is also incredibly vibrant, which has a lot to do with Grace and her personality. She's so full of life, unafraid to experiment with colour. Dressed in outfits of vivid pinks that girls would have worn from stores of their youth (think La Senza Girl) with large patterned earrings from Claire's to match. Claudia's look, on the other hand, is dull and plain — the wardrobe of someone whose life has been void of the vibrancy that Grace now brings.
Kavenagh gives an incredibly emotional performance, and it's interesting to see Stewardson shift Grace's demeanour when she's with Claudia versus when she goes home. They are both characters dealing with their own pain and they create a little oasis together. Stewardson is also captivating to watch because her eyes are so expressive and her scenes are humorous, especially in those moments when Grace attempts to get Claudia to kiss her. It's the familiar desperation to kiss your crush for the first time mixed with the innocence of first love. Found directs the relationship between these two with such care and in a way that feels authentic. I don't think many realize the power that lines like, "I don't know what to do" and "Me neither," in regards to intimacy, can have on a teen just figuring themselves out. You don't know what you're doing and you're also too scared to confide in anyone about those things. This is a film that queer teens of my generation needed — but luckily, others now have it.
Inside Out festival runs online from May 27 to June 6.