BFI Flare Festival 2021: My First Summer

One of the films I have even excited to view was Katie Found’s directorial debut, My First Summer. The film follows Claudia (Markella Kavenagh), who is grieving after her mother drowned herself and Grace (Maiah Stewardson), a girl who lives nearby who saved Claudia from drowning with her mum. Claudia has lived a life in seclusion due to her mum’s negative outlook on the world and Grace’s entry into her life opens Claudia’s eyes and makes her see the beauty in life. With polar opposite personalities, the differences between the girls is what draws them together and ignites a romance. As the title suggests, this film doesn’t span a long period of time but the beautiful slow burning pace allows us to become familiarised with the characters. Delving into topics of loss and grief and contrasting this with the promises of hope and love that is found, Found explores a wide range of emotions and the internal and external conflicts that they can inspire.

Written and directed by Found, My First Summer makes the most from its limited location. Using Claudia’s house and the surrounding woodland primarily, there seems to be a lot of freedom in the amount of space and yet Claudia is trapped and disconnected from society because of how secluded it is. Found’s direction is beautiful and makes the most of the summery weather, allowing those bright colours and the warm tones contrasting with the topics of loss and grief. Considering the short running time of 90 minutes, Found does a great job with her screenplay as we really get to know Claudia and Grace and get an understanding of their points of view. It’s a film that doesn’t rely on being big and bold to get its point across and allows the two protagonists to become fully realised in a way that feels real and natural.

Markella Kavenagh’s performance is heartbreaking as Claudia has to deal with both the loss of her mum and the realities of the world outside. Having to hide from the police who would take her away due to her age, Claudia is initially alone and dealing with her grief with her dog by her side. Compared to Grace, Claudia is introverted and is academically intelligent without actually knowing how to properly communicate with people. Despite the natural world around her, the rooms in her house are undecorated and muted colours to reflect the fact that she is a blank canvas waiting to start her life. Kavenagh’s performance is quietly strong, when put against Stewardson who is the extroverted Grace, we see Claudia come out of her shell and grow into herself. A remarkable leading performance that is layered and nuanced.

The second lead in My First Summer is Maiah Stewardson who plays Grace perfectly. Outspoken and extroverted, Grace knows what she wants to get out of life. Suffering from her own experience of entrapment by her neglectful mother and step-father, Grace finds her own safety net with Claudia. After saving Claudia’s life, Grace acts as a guardian for her and helps keep her hidden from the police. Stewardson is captivating as Grace and makes the perfect onscreen partner for Kavenagh and the two have a chemistry that works organically and naturally. The slow burning nature of the relationship doesn’t feel rushed even though the film itself spans a short amount of time. Stewardson’s performance is tinged with maturity and naivety at the same time, reflecting the reality that these two girls are only 16 and haven’t had a lot of life experience.

Overall, My First Summer was even better than I had expected and left me speechless at its ending. The screenplay has a wonderful, steady pace and the girls are perfectly cast. I am very excited to see where Found, Kavenagh and Stewardson’s careers take them as this film is a very promising start and shows a great future for them. Showing the world through the eyes of a 16 year old who may not understand everything helps to create a film that feels grounded in its own universe and Found has captured this flawlessly. This film is not to be missed.

My First Summer is showing at BFI Flare Festival.

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