By Hans Pedersen, November 2016 Issue.

If you watched the coming-of-age romance First Girl I Loved with no prior knowledge of it, you might find the tale to be so radiant with authenticity you’d assume the writer and director was inspired after coming-out as a teenage girl in high school.

But this lovable indie was actually written and directed by a straight man: Kerem Sanga does an admirable job of getting inside the shoes of Anne, a high school student who’s falling in love with another girl, stepping out of the closet and facing unjust pressures and violations.

Anne (Dylan Gelula) is also a bit of an outsider when she’s instantly smitten with a popular new cheerleader named Sasha (Brianna Hildebrand).

When she confesses to her best friend, Cliff (Mateo Arias), that she likes the girl, essentially coming out to him, he is first unnerved, and then grows unhinged.

Turns out Cliff is secretly attracted to Anne, who had always believed there was only a friendship between them. Her bewitching bestie turns on her, brutally betraying her in more than one fashion.

Meantime, Anne and Sasha embark on a series of awkward flirtations, leading up to one of the sweetest falling-in-love moments ever depicted on the silver screen. Their amorous communications via smart phones feel natural and function neatly in the plot, without feeling too overwrought or gimmicky.

But as the new cheerleader finds herself settling into the confines of the school’s social politics, her attitude toward Anne cools. Ultimately, our heroine must decide whether or not to fight for Sasha.

Anne’s process of coming out shows that recognizing and declaring your sexual identity is still no easy task for teens.

And, as events unfold, Sanga helps his performers master the illusion of the first time and the lovable and authentic qualities to their performances help elevate the believability factor, keeping us invested in the characters.

Anne and Sasha respond to one another a few times in a sing-song, almost self-mocking fashion, like real people do. From such inflections to the use of sarcasm, naturalism seems to just emanate from these dynamite performances.

Characters’ nuances are well developed; they feel like real people with moral gray areas who struggle with ethical conflicts and darker sides.

Sanga keeps the action moving along at a crisp pace, and never risks lulling us into a second-act slumber as some lower-budget films can.

A soundtrack also keeps the story rolling along, reflecting the action and echoing the tone without being feverishly hip. Even from the memorable opening melody as the camera lingers on Anne, the musical choices always serve the story.

Sanga’s film could be a near-masterpiece of indie cinema if it weren’t for the pigtailed monstrosity that’s perched on top of one actress’ head.

It’s the only unbelievable element in the entire movie: the atrocious wig worn by Hildebrand in her role as Sasha. You keep wondering when she’s going to pull it of and reveal her real ‘do, even if you haven’t seen her work in Deadpool.

Such comments, admittedly, sound terribly nitpicky. Until you see what’s parked on poor Sasha’s skull. The fake red wig is a real distraction since it’s hard to overlook. The poor choice of headwear undercuts what is an otherwise close-to-perfect movie. But it is important to point out that despite the petty hair complaints, Hildebrand and Gelula both do an incredible job of fleshing out Sasha and Anne and bringing the love story to life.

First Girl I Loved is available on iTunes.

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Photo courtesy of The Dinah

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Photo courtesy of Michael Feinstein.

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