Growing Pains @ BFI Flare 2021: My First Summer

Dir: Katie Found
16-year-old Claudia (Markella Kavenagh) and her mother have lived Claudia’s whole life hidden in a cabin in the woods, away from the outside world. After her mother drowns herself, Claudia is surprised when Grace (Maiah Stewardson), who saw the incident, turns up at the cabin. The two develop a friendship that Grace doesn’t seem to have with other teens and that might help bring Claudia out of her hermetically sealed world just a little.

Much of Australian writer/director Katie Found’s feature debut has an almost fairytale feel about it. Claudia’s world, the one Grace first lets herself into and then is granted increasing access to by Claudia, is a place where they seem almost entirely insulated from the outside world. Free from adult influence, they can mess around, eat what they like, and discover themselves. Though both girls are sixteen, they seem younger, Claudia because she has been kept naive about the world by her mother and Grace in the way she dresses all in pink and friendship bracelets, and seems only to eat sweets and chocolate and drink strawberry milk.

The connection between the two girls is forged in stages, Grace’s friendship drawing Claudia out and helping her deal with her mother’s suicide. In one sweetly sad scene, Grace goes for a swim in a shallow part of the river and tries to coax Claudia in with her. When they go underwater, Claudia panics, but Grace—taking on the role Claudia’s mother should have played—holds her, comforts her and makes her feel safe. There is a tenderness in this moment that we see throughout their relationship and the film as a whole, and which makes the connection between the girls something palpable.

Katie Found’s direction also contributes to the tender and intimate feeling of the film. Many of the interactions between Grace and Claudia are observed primarily in close up, the world a hazy thing surrounding them but not really impacting on them. There are of course breaks from this; the aforementioned river scene, a scene of the two dyeing Claudia’s sheets, which turns into a water fight, but most of the time the focus is tightly on the girls and their ever closer bond. It’s a directorial choice that also focuses us on gaze, especially on the way that Grace looks at Claudia with increasing, sometimes thwarted, desire. An amusing example of this comes when, clearly trying to get Claudia to kiss her, Grace asks her to guess different flavours of lip balm and is subtly, but visibly, frustrated when Claudia initially guesses just from the smell. 

Markella Kavenagh and Maiah Stewardson bring the growing bond between the girls to life with playful performances that portray a great comfort in the connection that Grace and Claudia find in each other, which builds into a convincing romantic chemistry. There is always a little more edge in Stewardson’s performance; a sense that Claudia, naive thanks to her upbringing, could misread something from Grace, but Kavenagh’s gentle performance shows us how quickly Grace begins to understand this.

The real world looms throughout. Cops looking into Claudia’s mother’s suicide talk to Grace several times, but she keeps Claudia secret, first because the idea of leaving the house is terrifying for her (almost the first thing she says to Grace is “If they know I’m here they’ll take me away”) and because Grace wants to keep this little world, and the relationship growing within it, for herself. When the fairytale is punctured it’s traumatic, but it also brings the girls together in a lovely final moment that is at once uncertain and hopeful. 

I’ve been using words like tender, intimate and fairytale to describe My First Summer, but that’s not to say that it’s purely lightweight. There is darkness and emotional pull in Claudia’s shell-shocked response to her mother’s suicide. In one brief sequence, Claudia sees her mother, first as she remembers her and then as she last saw her; soaking wet and going to her death. This is one of a few moments that bring to the surface Maiah Stewardson’s portrayal of that initial emotional disconnect and a more enduring survivor's guilt.

Overall, this is a very promising debut from Katie Found, it has that hazy feel of a memory of a teenage summer, but the mixed emotions provoked by the story and performances always remain in focus.

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