Synopsis: A young, happy-ish married couple’s relationship is thrown off its axis when they meet Olivia. The trio’s attraction to each other is undeniable, but when they become romantically involved, they push each other’s boundaries to the limits as they discover painful truths about who they are, what they want, and how to love in turbulent times.
Stars: Rachel Alig, Ryan Caraway, Kate Beecroft, Jordee Kopanski, Christopher Moaney-Lawson, Riley Ceder, Kevin Newman
Director: Victor Neumark
Running Length: 107 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: What we have in First Blush is a tale as old as time. A not-quite-old-enough-to-have-regrets-yet person experiences an emotional crisis, spurring them to venture outside of their comfort zone to explore a life beyond their perceived limitations. Whether they are actually being held back isn’t really the point, the point is that they’ve made a realization that their world needs a shift, a realignment, and they seize on an opportunity to effect that change. Eventually leading to a catharsis (usually after a rough fallout that leaves a heart or two broken), this individual stares into the sunset before the credits roll, takes a deep breath, and exhales into the fadeout stronger than they were when the movie began.
In writer/director Victor Neumark’s First Blush, a 2019 indie production that made its way through the festival circuit and is now debuting on streaming services as well as BluRay (for a whopping $39 last time I checked!), our on-the-edge sunset-starer is Nena (Rachel Alig) and she’s turning 30 as the film opens. To the casual observer, Nena is “adulting” correctly. She has a steady job, a convenient place to live in the Silver Lake area of Los Angeles, and a husband, Drew (Ryan Caraway), who cares enough to plan a surprise birthday party but doesn’t know her well enough to understand why she isn’t a fan of these types of gatherings. Maybe a little on the controlling side, she otherwise seems like any other person approaching a milestone birthday that wants to see that event pass by quietly with as few outsiders noticing as possible.
At the party, a new face catches Nena’s eye. Olivia (Kate Beecroft) a former model now working at the coffee shop along with Nena’s friend Carrie (a tirelessly perky Jordee Kopanski) who Nena winds up having a friendly and, was she imagining it?, flirty conversation with. Several days later, on a weekend camping trip with Carrie and her fiancé John (the nicely droll Christopher Moaney-Lawson) Olivia is there too and that’s when Drew starts to also pick up on a vibe between his wife and this new woman. There’s something there for him too…but he’s not sure what that means for either of the women. A solo night in with the three of them later confirms the spark and a fire is lit. It’s the start of a relationship between three people that tests bonds of marriage, friendship, honesty, and trust over the course of several months as it wends its way to a crossroads where the paths that lay ahead aren’t paved with smooth stones that are easy to traverse.
Over the past few decades in film, we’ve almost been trained to equate the term “threesome” with some taboo subject involving material too racy to be mainstream and that’s why it’s a shame the relatively benign First Blush didn’t get a wider distribution. I appreciated Neumark’s sensitive handling of the movie’s more intimate encounters, making it more about the connection than anything explicit or highly erotic in nature. It’s far more emotional than sexual and Neumark courageously taps into frank conversations that make the viewer feel like a voyeur into a couples counseling session we shouldn’t be privy to. While it does attempt to explain some of the needs fulfilled within a polyamorous relationship, it stops short of advocating one way or the other. The approach to what can be considered unapproachable is to be applauded.
Also garnering praise are the performances, mainly Alig projecting the right balance of curiosity tempered with frustrated uncertainty…and not just because of her relationship with Olivia. We get the impression there are other factors in her life and relationship with Drew before we dropped in that are a source of stress and this new outlet that feels right at the time is one way she exorcises herself and finds some kind of release. When it starts to get out of her control is when she finds she needs to hit the pause button, but that happens to be the exact moment Drew and Olivia are finally feeling they are the most comfortable.
That’s also where I started to have issues with the way the script starts to place blame on Nena’s objection to certain behavior exhibited by her new friend and, most importantly, her husband. Yes, she was the one that may have broached the idea of exploration at first but when communication begins to break down and parts of this increasingly tricky triangle are left out of the equation, it can only lead to the series of events Neumark has laid out like mini landmines for his characters and it’s mostly Nena that winds up having to tread carefully. Over the run time, Neumark establishes roles for the characters and I wasn’t completely on board with how he managed to align his small cast. Without giving away any spoilers, when you have to change some fundamental aspects of a character that were established earlier on just to make a point, there’s something off in your storytelling. As strong as Alig is, I wish Caraway was a bit more on her level in the intensity department because he comes off strangely removed not just from the situation but from the film itself…as if he was distancing himself subconsciously.
There’s a small subplot involving Olivia’s brother that should have been left on the cutting room floor because it’s equal parts unnecessary to the overall arc of our main characters and not acted convincingly by either Beecroft or Riley Ceder. It would have trimmed the run time to be a hair tighter, keeping the energy up when First Blush needs it the most. Still. it’s well made and possesses that warm California indie spirit glow. I can’t say how well Neumark got inside the ménage à trois featured in First Blush but it feels like there was a level of respect for those that find that arrangement works for them. It certainly doesn’t pass judgement and what counterarguments it provides, it applies with a gentle hand.