Synopsis: A documentary which follows the lives of three young girls from Phillip Island as they attempt at making a career out of surfing.
A worthy take on Gidget girls.
Claire Gorman’s winning documentary captures the essence of innocence, energy, spirit and self-belief, in addition to some seriously cool wave action. Gorman and her collaborators Clare Plueckhahn and Fran Derham have crafted a simple yet beautiful salute to the goodness of true friendship and the character-building nature of a sporting passion.
Like a ‘Sisterhood of the Travelling Boardshorts’, First Love follows three teenage girls who have been best friends for years and who now find themselves on the brink of superstardom in the big-dollar world of competitive surfing. The boisterous, brashly-confident Nikki van Dijk is a natural talent and a sponsor’s dream, oozing an almost pre-ordained sense of entitlement to the winner’s rostrums and magazine covers of the world; the more serene but no less talented India Payne has a Zen-like approach to her life and sport; and Jessica Laing, a more introverted girl, draws her strength from her friends and may well by the most skilful of the group, if she can overcome the Chronic Fatigue Syndrome that has dogged her young life.
The film joins the girls as they prepare to embark upon their first major competition in Hawaii, but their preparation and the film’s production is derailed when Jessica seriously injures her shoulder and is forced out of the water for a year. From this turning point, the film becomes two distinct yet equally involving entities: The experience of Niki and India as they become initiated into the tribal culture of professional surfing (the film features current champions Stephanie Gilmore, Alana Blanchard, Coco Ho and Bethany Hamilton); and Jessica’s sadness and determination as she rebuilds her arm and maintains her equilibrium as she’s denied the joys of friendship and boardriding, the only realities that put her truly at ease.
In balancing the action visuals with the girls’ deeply spiritual connection to the sport, first-timer Gorman walks a very thin tightrope. She understands her subjects – that the girls partly define themselves by their all-encompassing love for the ocean and their sport – and she doesn’t deny insight to that joy. But Gorman also realises the need to capture the girl’s growth (literally and figuratively – the film took over a year to shoot).
Sometimes Gorman is a little too enamoured of her charges. Photogenic Niki’s occasionally overbearing demeanour is given a tad too much screen time, and the chronicle of the excessive lifestyle of the big-girl party crowd could have been slyly edited in favour of some more insight into Jessica’s struggle to recover all alone. The structure of the girls’ support base at home is also given short shrift, suggesting they found their determination and drive all by themselves, which may or may not be true.
Regardless of its minor shortcomings, it is hard to find significant fault with a film that feels so effortlessly inspirational. In light of some of the spoiled antics that have sullied the reputations of overpaid athletes and their chosen codes, the cynicism-free celebration of friendship through sport that First Love presents is a rousing testament to Niki, Jess and India as well as Claire Gorman’s skill as a documentarian and storyteller.
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