You Were My First Boyfriend
(USA, 97 min.)
Dir. Cecilia Aldarondo, co-dir. Sarah Enid Hagey
Programme: International Spectrum (International premiere)
You Were My First Boyfriend marks a progressive step as a documentary that credits an on-set therapist. Director Cecilia Aldarondo (Landfall) doesn’t share that credit herself, but she deserves to, at least in spirit. (That credit, though, deservedly goes to Tina Pitts.) Part cinematic scrapbook, part revisionist history, and part therapy session, You Were My First Boyfriend exudes palpable catharsis for all involved. It’s especially impressive given that Aldarondo’s premise could easily lapse into self-indulgence. However, as she looks back to the growing pains of high school, her playfully collaborative approach of filming through trauma invites people with whom her story intersected to join her in a shared therapeutic exercise. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and you’ll love it. Film nerds will especially feel seen in these fast times at Aldarondo High.
The filmmaker drolly acknowledges that her high school years were the ultimate teen movie cliché. As the bigger Puerto Rican girl with kinky hair amid a nest of WASPs, Aldarondo shares how she didn’t fit in. She also had a crush on the hunky jock, a bad prom experience, run-ins with bullies, and an adolescence saved by friendship and movies. Her life is a checklist of 1990s’ teen cinema. However, an impending high school reunion triggers bad memories and while Aldarondo doesn’t crash the party claiming to have invented Post-It Notes, she brings her camera as she re-engages with former friends, foes, and people who’ve forgotten her.
Joel the Jock
While revisiting former classmates, though, Aldarondo learns how differently her peers recall their high school experience. This gap inspires her to consider key moments of adolescence. For example, she pulls up awkward memories of her first crush, Joel, and recalls pining for him unrequitedly. Aldarondo inevitably tracks down Joel and interviews him about those years. He admits that he had no idea that she crushed on him. Moreover, his recollection of their dance together differs. For Joel, it’s a memory of a nice, innocent gesture to the dorky girl who asked him to dance. For Aldarondo, it’s an awful memory of being the victim of a Mean Girls/ Heathers prank by Joel’s girlfriend who wanted to humiliate Cecilia.
In an inspired move, though, Aldarondo embraces the clichés of her experience and casts herself in dramatic recreations of these events. Aldarondo reimagines her crush with an homage to the teen drama series My So Called Life. She plays the Claire Danes part, while her husband Gabe gets to be Jared Leto—another object of her teenage fascination—and plays the part of the high school crush quite convincingly as they enjoy the Hollywood ending that high school denied. Everyone in the halls, though, is a legit teenager, which makes the awkwardness of the 40-somethings in mid-’90s’ wigs and threads extra humorous. Aldarondo finally gets her man in the end.
Confronting Pain on Film
You Were My First Boyfriend brilliantly brings Aldarondo’s high school yearbook to life through a collage of old photos, diaries, and scrapbooks. The film’s tactile, cut-and-paste nature adds to the unique hybrid style. Some memories outlast their paper, tactile archives.
Working with co-director and editor Sarah Enid Hagey, You Were My First Boyfriend offers a shrewd blend of film-within-a-film vignettes alongside behind-the-scenes verité as Aldarondo works with actors and former classmates to recreate these memories. One really gets to see the process of leading with care behind Aldarondo’s approach. These exercises are equally therapeutic for some of her classmates, including recreations that inadvertently retraumatize peers and let them heal.
Especially powerful is a scene in which Aldarondo recalls enabling the bullies instead of helping a fellow outsider. She remembers a night at camp when kids picked on Jo Anne and mocked her weight while she slept. The real Jo Anne returns and serves as a consultant. She watches on a monitor as an actor playing her younger self “sleeps” while the other girls coat her in food. It’s a bizarre moment, but Jo Anne is visibly overcome with emotion as she observes her fictionalized self covered in mashed up food.
There are tears and frank conversations as she and Aldarondo make amends. Through the seemingly simple gesture of inviting Jo Anne to participate in the production, though, the film demonstrates the invisible weight people carry. Seemingly trivial moments can shape people for the rest of their lives.
Bringing Caroline to Life
And then there’s the story of Aldarondo’s former BFF, Caroline. Aldarondo recalls countless nights spent watching old VHS tapes with Caroline. Nights of rewatching the skinny dipping scene in A Room with a View, for example, were formative moments of her adolescence. (Whatever works!) But this chapter proves especially touching as Aldarondo acknowledges the cruelty of her behaviour towards her former friend. The film’s deceptive framing makes the dramatic elements especially poignant when Aldarondo reveals the casting process for Caroline. Shortly after meeting the real Joel earlier, for example, Aldarondo recreates moments from Halloween with “Caroline.” As the story shares how the friends’ lives veered into different paths, with one turning towards tragedy, You Were My First Boyfriend poignantly lets the dramatic recreations give old friends new life.
Aldarondo has a great eye for both the documentary and dramatic poles of her film. She knows how to put them in conversation. The mix of archive, verité, and fictional-ish recreations illustrates how people with whom we share our lives shape the past, present, and future. Moreover, she gets the fluidity and subjectivity of memory, and the productive exercise that arises in sorting out the creative differences of memory.
As old jitters creep in and inspire imposter syndrome, one sees a great deal of anxiety in the director about being judged anew as returns to adolescence with a sense of vulnerability that high school rarely allows. However, when doing a hilarious recreation of Tori Amos’s “Crucify” video with her sister, Aldarondo illustrates how people let the smallest things weigh them down. A lesson here is to dance like nobody’s watching. Or, as the films within a film suggests, create a showstopper of a dance for all to see. Hey, it worked for Romy and Michele, didn’t it?
You Were My First Boyfriend premiered at Hot Docs 2023.
Get more coverage from this year’s festival here.
Correction (03/05/2023): This previous previously miscredited the performance in the Jared Leto role to Joel. It is played by Aldarondo’s husband, Gabe.