“My First Summer” is diametrically opposed to my last article on “Brokeback Mountain” in terms of visibility: Neither I nor anyone I know had heard of it. But boy am I glad Letterboxd led me to this gem.
Written and directed by Melbourne-based Katie Found, “My First Summer” is her debut feature film. It is set in rural Australia, where Grace (Maiah Stewardson) stumbles upon a remote house and finds within it a spooked Claudia (Markella Kavenagh). The viewer comes to learn that 16-year-old Claudia’s mother, a novelist, had isolated her daughter from the world — independently raising and teaching her off the grid — due to her belief that the world was full of nothing but evil. This had culminated in a planned murder-suicide in which she and Claudia were to drown themselves in a nearby reservoir. The precise details about the occurrence remain murky, but it appears that Claudia did not follow her mother into the water. Grace finds her the next day terrified, distrusting, alone.
And though this thematic background is decidedly dark, what unfolds is actually quite a sweet, tender story.
The setting itself is vital not only to the narrative, but also to the overall visual feel of the film. The isolated quality of the area draws the viewer’s attention to the minutiae of nature: the leaves on the trees, the wind, the chirping of birds, the still water of the reservoir. The camera capitalizes on this, of course, dedicating shots interspersed between narrative-driving scenes to the sights and sounds of the house and surrounding area. This helps create a multi-sensory viewing experience and weaves an air of pleasant contemplativeness throughout the film.
The general lack of other people within the movie also allows the pure, human connection that develops between Grace and Claudia to resolutely take the foreground. In the quiet solitude that the film cultivates, the viewer becomes particularly attuned to every change in affect or dynamic between the two characters. I found myself enraptured watching Grace’s generosity and patience in introducing Claudia to a world unknown to her, as well as Claudia’s slow but progressive trust in Grace and in the possibilities beyond the edges of the reservoir. Every interaction between the two feels deliberate, consequential, and infused with meaning. Of course, the actresses themselves deserve the highest praises for their work in fostering this viewing environment, particularly since the entire film essentially rests on their shoulders. Stewardson and Kavenagh wear their hearts on their sleeves as Grace and Claudia, channeling an honesty of performance far beyond their years.
The film is most impressive, perhaps, in its ability to perfectly capture the essence of girlhood. Grace, herself, embodies the unabashed brightness of self associated with youth: She wears wacky earrings, fluffy, chiffon-like pink skirts, and colorful bead bracelets without any self-consciousness. She and Claudia revel in the novelty of a cockroach lollipop, the deliciousness of strawberry milk, and the overwhelming variety of the candy stash Grace smuggles to Claudia’s house. They decorate Claudia’s bedroom wall with magazine cutouts, make bracelets on a picnic blanket outside, dye Claudia’s sheets with plum pigment, have a spontaneous sprinkler fight, and splash around in a local pond. These activities provide space for Claudia to regress — in the best way. Having only ever been taught to fear the world, she is finally allowed to enjoy the silliness and fun and spontaneity uniquely associated with childhood, particularly girlhood.
Summer also proves to play a role important enough to warrant a place in the film’s title. The warmth and life of the season could not mesh better with the story’s themes of love, joy, and exploration. It’s a time free from obligation: A time to run around barefoot in the grass, cool off in some water, and bask in the sunlight. This time and this place create a welcoming environment in which Grace and Claudia’s relationship can develop and flourish.
This being said, I was skeptical about the way that the movie would handle its portrayal of the girls’ relationship. Both are said to be 16, and the movie as a whole maintains a theme of innocence and youth; telling a story of love and sexuality correctly given this context is not an easy task. I was, however, pleasantly surprised.
The movie neatly avoids portraying the girls and their bodies in a way that caters to the male gaze. Grace and Claudia are shown in scenes where they are scantily clad, such as when they enter the pond, or even naked, like when they take a bath together; the film does not shy away from portraying their bodies altogether. However, the camera does so in a relatively neutral way. When they are in their underclothes, it shows them from a moderate distance and does not rove over their bodies, and when they are naked, it cuts off below the chest. The scenes in which exposure happens also serve to further the narrative and feel appropriate given the activity being performed. Furthermore, the two share a sexual scene, but even this is portrayed through a lens of believable inexperience, tenderness, and laughter, as well as cuts before anything escalates further. Overall, “My First Summer” can be said to have handled intimacy and exploration of sexuality with care and thoughtfulness.
The film’s weakest point is probably its conveyance of the story of Claudia’s mother. As viewers, we have to infer a lot through snippets of flashbacks that haunt Claudia, and even then I did not feel I had a firm grasp on what their relationship had been like or the details of the circumstances surrounding the attempted murder-suicide. We see Claudia struggle greatly with the traumatic loss of her mother, but it feels somewhat abstract and elusive to us as viewers.
Generally, though, I don’t find that this detracted greatly from the film. I can see it being explained as a deliberate artistic choice to create a surrealist landscape. After all, the concept underlying the whole film is not exactly the most believable — a sequestered girl that nobody knows about, an isolated house, another girl who visits her everyday and introduces her to the world? The mother’s murder suicide is not more or less believable than any of these. The film requires viewers to suspend their disbelief to some extent, but it still manages to effectively convey a magical story at its core.
“My First Summer” (2020) is a relatively new movie, but it unfortunately flew far, far under the radar. To this day, it doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page. Actually, it does, but it’s written in Czech (?).
This lack of popularity is not an accurate reflection of the film’s quality, however. I typically find that enjoyable movies are sadly not always well-made, and vice versa. This movie, however, sits happily at the rare intersection of film quality and genuine entertainment. It is objectively a slow-moving story, but its joyful overtones and captivating dynamics command your attention in a way that helps it resist becoming boring. The acting is stellar, the cinematography is a pleasure to watch, and it is shot with a keen directorial eye that avoids the various traps that a film of this topic could have easily fallen into.
It is also a shame that a film with such a hopeful and sweet essence has gone underappreciated. This is a movie that has heavy elements but that is not dragged down by them; rather, it balances them with the innocence and naivety of two young girls that does border on ignorance, but which add to the lovability of the story. A modest run time of 80 minutes fits a multitude of joys: young love, candy necklaces, blue skies, loyal dogs, warm sun, long hair, flavored chapsticks, and more. It is a representation of the wonderful aspects of carefree life that we, particularly those of us who have experienced girlhood, may feel a pang of nostalgia for. And if none of that is compelling to you, then maybe everyone’s cool Aussie accents will convince you. Either way, “My First Summer” is worth your while — I purple promise.
Cultural Impact Rating: 1/10
Film Quality Rating: 9/10
Enjoyment Rating: 9/10
—In her column “Gaywatch,” Julia J. Hynek ’24 offers her opinions on queer movies from the last twenty years. She can be reached at email@example.com.