A grainy digital camera indie about a group of mental patients in a halfway home, you might be tempted to brush off My First Kiss and the People Involved as something that can easily be understood & forgotten within its opening minutes of lyrical daydreaming. It’s not the film you’re expecting. Surely, My First Kiss and the People Involved traffics in the standard indie drama empathy inherent to small scale films about systemic mental health care. However, it also mirrors the helplessness & delusion of its disenfranchised subjects by veering into the unexpected territory of a psychological horror. At times, the film’s tense paranoia & dread of sudden violence plays like the silent horror classic A Page of Madness by way of a classic Hitchcock thriller, which is not at all the expectation or precedent it sets in its more tender, but familiar first act.
Our window into the goings on of the halfway home is a wordless, listless patient named Sam. As she’s largely nonverbal & extremely sensitive to sensory overload, we specifically experience this world through her hands & singsong daydreams. The movie opens with Sam getting lost in small details: pinwheels, spider webs, flowers, magazine advertisements, television static. In a way she’s the world’s least reliable narrator, in that she doesn’t have the ability to narrate. We just watch her navigate a chaotic space in a daze, which is perfectly fine with the film’s early, minor events. Her quiet, easily-overloaded perspective adds an air of lyricism to her housemates’/fellow patients’ negotiations about movie night or living room masquerades or introduction to a cute rabbit as a household pet. Things get too intense when Sam starts to feel romantic stirrings for a fellow patient, though. That anxiety fully kicks into gear with her witnessing a possible murder, a traumatic event she can’t report or communicate to the outside world due to the limitations set by her particular condition.
Out-of-nowhere actor India Menuez is having a great year professionally, appearing in supporting roles in the two much-hyped indies White Girl & Nocturnal Animals. Her starring turn as Sam in My First Kiss and the People Involved offers a much quieter, tenderer showcase of her talents than those smaller roles are likely to, though. We experience the world through her physical touch & her internal paranoia. When a rabbit appears to speak or when a boy leans in for a too-much-too-soon intimacy we’re dazed in the same overwhelmed, disjointed mind frame. There’s something of a 90s indie movie vibe in My First Kiss’s more familiar aspects. The grainy digital haze, the Courtney Love vibes in its more tragic counselor and the ripped up & faded blue jeans all recall the era. Where a 90s work might’ve stopped at generating empathy for its vulnerable, fractured protagonist, however, this film pushes further into the paranoia of a psychological horror, forcing the audience to perceive the world through that vulnerable lens instead of merely pitying it. Menuez does a great job of anchoring the empathy in this way, bringing a light, but frustrated tenderness to a role that requires surgical precision to work. The film does its best to surprise & subvert expectations within the confines of its means & genre, but it’s Menuez’s performance that allows that subversion to hit with full, meaningful impact.