First crush

Julianna Notten on Erin’s Guide To Kissing Girls

by Jennie Kermode

Jesyca Gu and Elliot Stocking in Erin's Guide To Kissing Girls
Jesyca Gu and Elliot Stocking in Erin's Guide To Kissing Girls

A first crush is an overwhelming experience, and it sends a teenager’s life careering off course in Erin’s Guide To Kissing Girls. The title character, played by Elliot Stocking, is so fixated on Sydni (Rosali Annikie), the new girl at school and a child star to boot, that she starts to ignore her longstanding best friend and fellow comics nerd Liz (Jesyca Gu), taking her for granted in a way that will end up affecting them both far more severely than she realises. When I met the film’s director, Julianna Notten, I began our conversation by thanking her for creating the kind of film I wish had been available to me when I was that age.

“That's exactly it,” she says, smiling. ”I didn't even know that exploring my sexuality was an option for me when I was young. I went to Catholic school, I was fairly sheltered. There wasn't the internet boom that there is now. And so in a lot of ways I'm writing this film for my younger self, as a kind of catharsis, because I was feeling all of these big emotions that they're feeling in the film, but I got to tell it through a queer lens, which was really, really cool.”

It’s something that’s gradually getting better in cinema, but it seems appropriate that Erin and Liz would be obsessed with comics because they’ve been doing a lot more in this area.

Erin's Guide To Kissing Girls
Erin's Guide To Kissing Girls

“They have, yeah. I feel like there's a lot more like representation happening within the comic world now, and like you said, you can move a lot faster than other mediums sometimes. I'm not as hugely into comics as the characters. For me, it was all about books. I was reading things, going through books like water. But I know that comics are really, really big right now for young people, and so I wanted to build that in.

“It was more of a smaller thing, originally, in the earlier drafts, but as the script develops, it became this really powerful tool to talk about the friendship and also as a way for Erin to express what's going on for her internally, without explicitly saying it, because at that age you don't have the language to talk about these things. She communicates her feelings through her art, in the same way, like when I was a kid, I would be writing a lot of stories and discovering my feelings through the characters I was writing.”

It also helps us to feel closer to Erin despite the fact that she can be quite self-centred and destructive at times.

“Yeah, I mean, I think it is important that in some ways she is kind of selfish at the beginning of it, and she can't really see how she's affecting this friendship with Liz. Part of her arc is learning to be a better friend or to be a little bit less selfish, because I think when you're that age, when you're 13 or 14 years old, it can be very easy to get really caught up in your own drama. I know I did. But, you know, it is part of the process of growing up and learning that the world doesn’t always revolve around you, and you're not always the main character in your own film – even though that’s true here, but you know.” She laughs.

Was the friendship always at the centre of the story when the film was in development?

“Yeah. I really wanted the main relationship in the film to be about the friendship, and I wanted to explore what happens to friendship at this age, as I experienced it when I was that age, like when one of you feels like they're growing up a little quicker than the other, at that age where the line is very blurred. Like, for me, I felt like I just came to school one day and all of a sudden everyone was really into relationships and makeup and wearing bras and all different clothes and whatever, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I'm still a kid!’ Like I didn't realise, now I have to grow up.

“I think the realisation Erin goes through as well is like, ‘Oh, the only way I'm going to be able to survive next year in high school is if I do these things.’ But I think it can be sometimes hard to get caught up in that, especially being queer and experiencing what you think is your first real love. And getting caught up in that and neglecting like other people and your friendships, and people who are important to you in your life, along the way.”

Erin and Liz experience some homophobic bullying, but it’s so pathetic that it seems unlikely to upset viewers.

Erin’s Guide To Kissing Girls
Erin’s Guide To Kissing Girls

“I talked a lot with the kids in terms of making sure that it felt authentic,” she says, “because I think there can sometimes be this idea that homophobia is completely over and everyone accepts gay people now. And I think it's broadly accepted, but there are still microaggressions that happen and there are still little comments people will make. I wanted to make it clear that Erin and Liz are more bullied because they're kind of loser comics nerds. They're off in their own world and they are a little bit more childlike – they haven't quite grown up yet. The fact that Erin is out as gay is just another thing that sets her apart, whereas when the kids start to believe that Sydni might be gay, that’s cool, you know?”

There seems to be a bit of sympathy there for the cliquey girls in the school, too, as Erin invades their space.

“Exactly, yeah. They're not like Erin and Liz are not totally worthless, either. Liz has this thing where she thinks that she's better than all these people, because she doesn't subscribe to the same ideas that they have, and Erin is just, like, fully infiltrating whatever – but at the end of the day they just want the same thing. Everyone just wants to be accepted for who they are, and they want to feel like they belong. The worst thing at that age is feeling like you're different or like you're on the outside. And so it makes it makes sense that they have this thing going and they don't want to ruin it.”

So why choose to make Sydni a child star?

“I wanted to create this character who would instantly be this It girl, without it just being the fact that she's the new girl. I played with the idea of like, maybe she's like an influencer, but I thought the idea of making her a child star was really interesting in that she's known for this role that she does not inhabit anymore. And she's got all of these walls up because she does not wants to let people in, because they only see her as this child star, or they only want to be friends with her because she has this fame about her, and they never really want to get to know the real her. So for most of the movie, her walls are up. And it's not really until she gets to know Erin a little bit better that she's able to put them down a little bit.

“I thought it would be an interesting way to make this character who is more grown up, for a number of reasons. It's the fact that she’s a child star, it’s the fact that both her parents are queer and so she's learned about a lot more things than a lot of kids her age, and she has this shorthand with social justice and stuff like that. But yeah, I just thought it would be an interesting way to explore this character who comes off this certain way, but you kind of understand like why that is because of this story she has.”

The film harks back to Eighties high school movies in which romance is all about making big gestures. Were those films, perhaps, sending an unhealthy message?

“I definitely watched a lot of Eighties romcoms as well, while I was writing the script,” she says. “And yeah, I think there's something interesting about these big ideas like how you get the girl or how you get your love interest, and not always in a very authentic way. Erin is also, in a way, trying to be someone else, like this person that she thinks that she's supposed to be. And then rediscovering who she is and learning that it's okay to be who she is.”

Erin's Guide To Kissing Girls poster
Erin's Guide To Kissing Girls poster

We talk about casting, and the three teenagers on whose shoulders the whole film rests.

“All three of them at first auditioned for Erin,” she says. “I think we knew right away that these were our three, and then it was just a matter of placing them where they fit, so we tried them out in each of the roles. Why we settled on Elliot as Erin was because of the way that they related to the character in a way that the other two, at least at the time, didn't.

“We had said in the casting call, if you feel comfortable enough identifying if you're queer or not, by all means let us know, but it's not a requirement. Because we thought it would be weird to tell young people ‘You basically have to come out in this audition process.’ And also, you're still figuring things out at that age. So Elliot came in and we did the scenes and they were really fabulous, and I always talked with the actors afterwards to get like sense of who they were, and they were just like, ‘I'm so glad that a character like this exists out in the world.’

“You can teach acting, but you can't teach experience. And so the fact that they really understood what Erin was going through and had first hand experience with that made it kind of a no-brainer. And, you know, Jesyca is just a powerhouse, so amazing, and she brought this whole other level to it, which I love. And Rosi, she had to send in a self tape for her second audition, and when we finally got it, she had animé posters in the background. She was doing it with her best friend, she was having so much fun with her and I was like, ‘Oh, okay, you're bringing this sort of humanity and this levity to Sydni.’ And so I was so pleased with the fact that we were able to get all three in the role.”

The chemistry between Elliot and Jesyca particularly is really strong. Was there much chance for them to work together before the shoot started?

“I really fought for a lot of rehearsal time with them because I knew how important that connection in particular was going to be. So we spent a lot of time rehearsing over Zoom during Covid, and then we were in my backyard rehearsing the scenes, but a lot of it was also just letting them get to know each other and just hang out and build their own relationship with each other. And then we would talk a lot about what was going on behind the scenes for the characters.

“I worked a lot with them to figure out the authenticity in their character because I was like, ‘Well, I'm writing that from what I remember being your age, but you're actually living it, or have lived it quite recently.’ And they were all very generous with me about that. They offered different suggestions, and so we discovered these characters together, which was really cool.

“I hope that young people watching the film will see themselves in the characters of Erin and Liz, and I hope that people who are my age and above get a sense of catharsis, to see a film that they wish that they could have had at that age. Because I know I desperately needed a film like Erin's Guide To Kissing Girls.”

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