There is something quintessentially Australian about finding privacy in a wide expanse of nature, and My First Summer uses the depths of Australian forests as a furtive playground for big emotions.
A teenage girl, Grace (Maiah Stewardson), witnesses a reclusive writer, Veronica Fox (Edwina Wren), commit suicide in a local lake. She also spies another teen running from the scene. As she investigates, she discovers Claudia (Markella Kavenagh), the writer’s daughter who has lived a secluded life with her mother and is now left on her own. Hidden from the wider world, the two girls build a tentative friendship, blossoming into a young love. But their small oasis can’t last forever.
There are spaces within spaces, both physical and mental, in My First Summer. From the Fox’s small property, to Grace’s need to seek privacy away from her home among the trees nearby. Private moments happen in open, public spaces, constantly building a tension of discovery. There is a claustrophobia as well as a freedom in the landscape.
Claudia, traumatised by her mother’s suicide and a rude awakening to the outside world, rediscovers joy through Grace’s often clueless, but well meaning, interventions. Both girls’ inner lives push them toward each other in awkward and enlightening ways.
My First Summer hangs on the performances of Stewardson as Grace and Kavenaugh as Claudia. Both young performers bring out complex depths to these well-drawn characters. There is an awkward intimacy to their scenes, two young women trying desperately to communicate when they seem to be speaking different languages, but together they bloom into so much more.
Writer-director Katie Found captures the heady, confusing explosion of young love while never losing her grounding. This isn’t just a romance, but a tale of trauma and the healing power of connection.
My First Summer is a startlingly strong debut. Drawing complex performances from the whole cast, and painting a picture of rural Australia that is deep and rich, Found has made a stand-out film that will no doubt be the start of big career.
By Chad Armstrong
My First Summer is playing in cinemas as part of QueerScreen’s Mardi Gras Film Festival 2021 on Thursday Feb 25. Get tickets and find out more on the QueerScreen website.