YOU WERE MY FIRST BOYFRIEND (SXSW2023) – Review by Diane Carson

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Introducing the world premiere of You Were My First Boyfriend at this year’s SXSW Film Festival, co-director/co-writer Cecilia Aldarondo said with a smile that she decided to attend her high school reunion so we would not have to. Going all in, co-director /co-writer Sarah Enid Hagey’s and Aldarondo’s hybrid documentary involves remembering and restaging events from Cecilia’s 1990s adolescence with a cast of teenage actors interacting with her now. She also reflects with her sister, friends, and classmates populating her memories. On the whole, it works as the narrative weaves back and forth from first-person direct address to the camera to reimagined incidents.

Through this present-to-past reconnection, serious reconsideration is given for those classmates Cecilia befriended, idolized, and treated badly. In a discussion after the screening, acknowledging how notoriously unreliable memory can be, Cecilia described her reminiscing as elaborate psychotherapy. The narrative fluctuates from strong scenes to, occasionally, self-conscious indulgence as the fraught high school experiences become clichéd (perhaps part of her point in offering archetypal encounters). Also off-putting, as some fine comic filmmakers have noted, when too much of the characters’ laughing dominates on screen (as it does at times here), the audience feels less encouraged to participate. Humor is great; more sober reflection would enhance involvement. In addition, some jarring tonal shifts define contemporary interviews versus those recreated.

Nevertheless, the film addresses persistent, serious issues as Cecilia confronts body image issues, oppressive beauty standards, ethnicity and race concerns, plus skin color, weight, and puberty horrors. Aldarondo examines her close, perplexing friendship with Caroline Baker, to whom she dedicates the film after a recent tragedy. A bullying incident victimizing a fat girl haunts Cecilia, and her reenactment of it makes a powerful statement. These many topics yield the screen to Cecilia’s obsession with Joel, the wished-for first boyfriend of the title. Reenacting a dance, remembered differently by those involved, reveals relevant insights into “what it means to imagine yourself in another time and place,” as Aldarondo said after the screening. In an exchange with that heartthrob Joel today, Cecilia realizes a delicious wish fulfillment, sitting across the table from him and revisiting that earlier infatuation. It makes for a curious, fascinating scene. If only we could all be so fortunate to, again in Aldarondo’s words, process our earlier life on screen to get to the healing.

In the SXSW discussion, co-director/co-writer Hagey added that a great amount of the catharsis happens in behind-the-scenes moments. She also mentioned that for Boyfriend she and Aldarondo watched dozens of teen movies, wanting to integrate “an anatomy of film references,” including Thelma and Louise, Big, Muriel’s Wedding, and more. Not many of the struggles and harassing, self-doubt and challenges have changed since the ‘90s. But because You Were My First Boyfriend depicts an honest, heartfelt reexamination, it will certainly contribute to improving the situation today as it interrogates regrets and their lasting legacy. In English and Spanish with English subtitles, You Were My First Boyfriend is an HBO documentary.

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Diane Carson

Diane Carson, Ph.D., Professor Emerita, has reviewed films for over 25 years and has covered the Cannes, Telluride, Toronto, Palm Springs, and Sundance festivals. She writes for KDHX, 88.1 FM. St. Louis’ community radio. One of the founders of the St. Louis International Film Festival, she continues to serve on juries. A past president of the University Film and Video Association, she taught film studies and production at St. Louis Community College and at Webster University. Her new book, written with two colleagues, is “Appetites and Anxieties: Food, Film, and the Politics of Representation,” Wayne State U. Press, 2014.