Friday 19 March 2021

My First Summer (Katie Found, 2020)

Australian director Katie Found's debut feature is a warm, hugely likeable coming-of-age tale, one that features strong, appealing performances from its two young leads.  In terms of capturing the essence of a hazy summer in which two teens come to find themselves—and each other—Found succeeds admirably; what's even more impressive is that this languorous atmosphere is created, and maintained, despite there being no shortage of dramatic events in the film's crisp running time.  That My First Summer neatly avoids the pitfalls that blight so many inaugural efforts is testament to the sterling work of its cast and crew, and at no point is there the sense that this is a debut; the film exudes a quiet confidence as it steadily weaves its spell, all the while avoiding the sort of needless flashiness that so many first films succumb to. 

16-year-old Claudia (Markella Kavenagh) is suddenly orphaned when her mother Veronica (Edwina Wren) drowns in a reservoir close to their home.  Claudia has led what is, quite literally, a very sheltered life, as reclusive author Veronica opted to completely shield her daughter from the ills of the world; as such, Claudia has spent her whole life in the remote home she shared with her mum and the outrageously cute Tilly, the family dog.  While it seems that Claudia received an education, she knows very little of the world and its ways; so successful was her mother's cocooning, it appears that no-one is even aware that Veronica had a child.  Therefore, when the writer's body is found, nothing is done in the way of checking up on the stranded teen.  But Claudia and Tilly aren't on their own for long, as another local 16-year-old, Grace (Maiah Stewardson), stumbles into their lives.  It transpires that Grace witnessed Veronica's death and spotted Claudia nearby; although Grace reports these details to two local police officers (Steve Mouzakis, Harvey Zielinski), she later recants.  The streetwise Grace, who favours cheerful dayglo clothing and shocking pink accessories, brings some much-needed colour into Claudia's rather beige existence, and as Grace befriends the jumpy, cautious Claudia, she is able to get some welcome relief from her own unhappy home life.  

As Grace and Claudia grow closer, there is a cumulative sense that their sun-basked idyll can't last, and the dreaded day comes when the same two detectives come to poke around Claudia's house; although Claudia manages to hide from the police, the officers discover the friendly Tilly and take her to be rehomed, much to Claudia's distress.  Thankfully, Grace is able to intervene and ensures that Tilly returns to Claudia; much like when she persuaded the police that she hadn't seen a girl at the scene of the drowning, Grace manages to convince the officers that Tilly is her own dog.  Luckily for Grace (and Claudia), these bumbling cops are neither very bright nor competent: shouldn't they have investigated Veronica's home immediately after her death, and/or carried out a simple records search that would have revealed Claudia's existence?  In any case, the threat to Grace and Claudia's magical world has been alleviated—at least for now.

While both of the leads are very good, on balance it's Stewardson who just edges it as Grace, a young woman who, despite having a home life that forces her to leave her guard up, hasn't lost her ability to let someone into her life—as her relationship with Claudia proves.  Grace is both well-played and well-written, and it would have been all too easy, not to say predictable, to portray her as a truculent, defensive character who slowly regains trust in others through the naïve Claudia.  Likewise, Claudia is no grunting, feral caricature, but merely has the limited knowledge and experience one would expect to find in someone who has spent the first 16 years of their life with just one other human being.  It is the nuance in both Found's script and the central performances that makes My First Summer such a refreshing, beguiling work; this fine film screens as part of BFI Flare until March 28.

Darren Arnold

Images: BFI