It’s difficult to manage a ménage à trois. Nena (Rachel Alig) and Drew (Ryan Caraway), the married couple at the center of First Blush, figure this out the hard way, in a deluge of arguments, emotional fallout, and broken hearts.
The third party they invite into their relationship is Olivia (Kate Beecroft), who’s about five years younger than them. She’s a quiet, mysterious former model who used to work in France — to Nena and Drew, who lead a humdrum life in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles, she looks like the seductive, chaotic force they never knew they needed. It’s not long until Olivia has moved in with them.
First Blush, written, directed, and edited by Victor Neumark, is more interested in the questions of romance and commitment that come with a three-way relationship than the sex itself. Olivia asks whether she’s allowed to sleep with other people — after all, Nena and Drew are already in a committed relationship, and Olivia sometimes feels like the third wheel. And can they have sex with each other if the third person isn’t there? It’s refreshing to see rational adult conversations about the fine points of poly relationships, whereas most films either focus on sex or have their characters behave like children.
That’s not to say our heroes never act childlike — Nena’s a control freak with major trust issues and a constant, roiling sense of anxiety. “You know that feeling when you’re not sure whether or not your sunglasses are still on the top of your head?” she asks Olivia when they meet at a party. “That’s my whole life.”
And for all the attention Neumark pays to the character and to the intricacies of a polyamorous lifestyle, there’s an unbearable whiteness to the whole affair. Game nights, trying molly for the first time, discussions about hummus, pontificating about the indignity of L.A. life, and characters who say stuff like “that was such an L.A. question.” First Blush is like Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young, another romantic, drug-assisted exploration of marriage, though without the moral compass and self-awareness.
But there’s also not the cloying idealized artsiness, either, that characterizes Baumbach’s work. Neumark and cinematographer Brett A. Frager shoot most of the movie in medium shots and closeups, the camera floating around watching the characters as if in the doldrums. Most scenes appear to use natural light, and it’s most noticeable in a heart-to-heart between Nena and Olivia on the side of a highway. It’s nighttime, and the streetlights in the background are our only source of light — Nena and Olivia mostly chat in obscurity, and the moment feels lived-in, real, and secretive.
A Sex Movie Without Sex
There’s not much in the way of style or atmosphere to First Blush, and the compositions mostly remain naturalistic and dull. The characters talk constantly about sex — specifically, the sex they’re having — but Neumark never shows it. And we should be satisfied with just the character interplay and drama between the sex, but the absence of these scenes weighs heavily on the story.
Luckily, the cast absolutely sells it — as Nena, Alig is always frazzled, which makes her connection with Olivia all the more romantic. Early on, they go on a camping trip organized by their engaged friends, Carrie (Jordee Kopanski) and John (Christopher Moaney-Lawson). They wake up facing each other in the tent, and Nena looks at Olivia for a while, studying her sleeping face. Olivia wakes up and barely catches her, and they hold eye contact for a while longer, waiting, before Olivia kisses Nena and goes back to sleep. It’s such a tiny moment, but it sets the entire plot in motion and serves as a great showcase for what Alig and Beecroft are able to do without any dialogue whatsoever. It’s also kind of as steamy as First Blush is willing to get — save for a kinky aside with Drew that he mentions offhandedly once and that I was both shocked and delighted to see return later in the story.
As Olivia, Beecroft excels at playing the coquettish drifter with a dark history, but it’s Caraway’s performance as Drew that really holds First Blush together. The main focus is between Nena and Olivia, of course — it’s the relationship the first 30 minutes spend so long building up, so Drew should feel like the film’s third wheel. But he doesn’t, and instead, Drew’s hyper logical personality and puppy-dog shows of love and support become integral to the film.
Ultimately, Caraway gets the saddest scenes and the most emotional arc — he loves Nena, but Nena’s ready to break his heart in an instant. And he loves Olivia, but he also recognizes that anything between them wouldn’t work without Nena.
And it’s Drew’s long night of the soul — after he and Nena are on the rocks and he’s seeking refuge with Olivia — that brings about the film’s thesis on love and entire raison d’etre: There’s no such thing as a normal relationship. Love is always messy, hard to control, and easy to lose if you aren’t careful. Nobody in First Blush is in a “normal relationship,” anyway. Everyone is just clinging to each other as hard as they can, lest they let go and drift off, alone, forever.
The film will be available June 5-7 at Seed&Spark. Learn more about the NFMLA Monthly Film Festival here.
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