Filmmaker Cecilia Aldarondo poignantly recreates her teenage years as a form of immersive therapy.
When I was around thirteen, two classmates, Christina and Taylor (their real names, it’s not like they’re going to read this), played a prank on me that resulted in my eating dog food. In retrospect, it could have been worse: nobody else saw it happen, and for whatever reason they kept it to themselves. But when I think about my teenage years (and I try not to much at this point in my life, other than at a superficial pop culture level), my mind often goes to that moment.
Perhaps a perfect example of the casual cruelty of adolescents, it’s crystallized in my brain, where it happened, the events leading up to it, the shame, embarrassment, and anger I felt, though it was anger at myself for letting it happen, not anger at them. Many years later, it’s still the shame I recall first, and that’s the most painful part. I had nothing to be ashamed of, they did, but for all I know even now, they never looked back on it as anything but a funny thing that happened to someone they believed didn’t matter.
In the documentary You Were My First Boyfriend, filmmaker Cecilia Aldarondo asks “Imagine a nightmare where you had to relive your adolescence.” For me, it would be the dog food incident. For her, it was at a school dance, where she was told by a female classmate that the boy Aldarondo desperately had a crush on wanted to dance with her. That turned out to be a prank too – though the boy danced with her, everyone around them treated the moment as if it was the funniest thing they’d ever seen. Aldarondo, now in her forties, has often thought back on that event over the years, and it inspired an idea to recreate that and other painfully formidable teenage memories, as a form of “emotional exorcism.” The final result starts as something awkwardly amusing, and ends on a heartbreaking note.
You Were My First Boyfriend touches upon painful first crushes, teenage insecurity, the inexplicable way we hold onto cutting remarks more than compliments, regretting the time wasted on people who never cared about us, and the reliability (or lack thereof) of our own memories. The last comes into play when she recalls Joel, the boy at the dance, a Ryan Gosling lookalike and one of the primary focuses of Aldarondo’s middle school journals. She meets up with Joel, now bald and no longer a ringer for Ryan Gosling, in the present, and he’s taken aback when Aldarondo reads a poem melodramatically declaring her undying love for him.
He barely remembers her, let alone knew about the longtime torch she held for him. Joel does remember dancing with her, however, though he recalls it differently, remembering that it was Aldarondo who asked him to dance. Because human memory is not nearly as infallible as we’d like it to be, it’s impossible to know which one of them is remembering it “correctly,” but it doesn’t really matter. The event still left Aldarondo embarrassed and more insecure than she already was, while for Joel it was just something that happened that he hadn’t thought about in years.
Aldarondo also looks back on pivotal pop culture moments in her youth, such as My So-Called Life and the video for Tori Amos’s “Crucify,” recreating them with her partner and sister, both of whom are great sports, as is Joanne, a former classmate who, as an overweight kid, had it even harder than Aldarondo. Joanne agrees to consult on a recreation of a time when she was bullied on an overnight camping trip, while Aldarondo stood by and did nothing, much to her later regret. Joanne is fairly reticent about the whole thing, until she’s moved to tears by the finished recreation and how it feels to be back in the shoes of a kid who can’t catch a break from anyone simply for the crime of not looking the “right” way. The “aren’t we so naughty?” giggles of the actresses playing Joanne’s bullies will send chills down the spine of anyone, particularly women, who were once a Joanne (or a Cecilia) themselves, whether you left school ten or thirty years ago.
The bittersweet heart of the story is Aldarondo’s relationship with Caroline, a childhood friend and one of the only people Aldarondo felt she could be herself around, which meant watching stuff like The Kids in the Hall and Wayne’s World, and giggling over the full frontal male nudity in A Room With a View. Unfortunately, in a young Aldorando’s plan for becoming more popular, Caroline, unconcerned with such things, simply didn’t fit, and she was cast aside. Such is the alluring power of the beautiful people, as we all know, and how much it means to be allowed in their presence, “like having a bit part in a movie, but at least I’m on set.”
Without giving anything away, there’s a reason Caroline isn’t around to help with the recreation of their friendship, and that provide an unexpected gut-punch, and makes what should be a bit of frivolous self-indulgence into one of the most emotionally moving films of the year. Despite its very millennial vibe, what Aldarondo reflects on in You Were My First Boyfriend is a universal experience for those who grew up quietly begging to be seen and accepted for who they were. It hurts to see photos of a young Aldarondo, where in reality she was a sweet-faced, friendly-looking girl, and not the ogre she perceived herself to be.
I mourn for that girl, and for Joanne, and especially for Caroline, and wishing things had been different for them (and for me, too). If only kids didn’t express their own fears and insecurities so brutally on other kids, if only adults could be more careful about the things they say to their children, if only someone could step in and say “You are enough just as you are, you are always enough.”
You Were My First Boyfriend is now streaming on Max.