If “The First Time I Was 20” teaches viewers anything, it’s that teenage boys in the 1960s were sophisticated enough to recognize that beauty is only skin deep, and antisemitic classmates can become best pals if only they get to know the real you. In short, Lorraine Levy’s wisp of a movie, in French with English subtitles and showing through July 6 as part of the Boston Jewish Film Festival Encores series, is a bit of a fantasy — but a heartwarming one at that.
Hannah Goldman (Marilou Berry) is 16, overweight and unhappy. She doesn’t fit in anywhere — not at home, where she alone weighs as much as her two slim and beautiful sisters, and not at her Parisian school, which can be the cruelest of places for fat girls. Her mother loves her, but her misguided attempts to help her daughter diet include serving her smaller portions than the rest of the family and reminding her that “there were no fatties in Auschwitz.” Hannah’s only real friend is her gay uncle, Jeremy.
Most teenagers faced with these predicaments would try their best to blend in, but Hannah, played by Berry with a feisty resiliency in a role that could easily have been played for laughs or pity, refuses to be cowed. Her only dream in life is to join her school’s all-male jazz band. Failure to do this, she says, would be akin to having a nervous breakdown or marrying a goy. She is allowed to audition after a class presentation in which she concedes that no, she doesn’t have a penis. “But you don’t play the double bass with your penis,” she remarks.
She easily proves herself the most skilled player and is chosen, much to the dismay of her band mates — four guys who would have been reluctant to accept a Jewish male, let alone a Jew with breasts.
Hannah is jubilant, but that quickly fades away when, in an effort to make her quit, the boys play a series of pranks on her that escalate from the only slightly annoying (gluing together the pages of her music booklet) to the maddening (planting stolen goods on her) to the seemingly unforgivable (painting a swastika over her sheet music) to the reprehensible final prank that renders her without cello. But she refuses to give up, shouldering the knowledge that if she lets them drive her out, she will be the first and last female ever to don the group’s coveted sequined jacket.
It gives nothing away to reveal that, in the end, Hannah will win them over. We know this because the one weak link among the bullying boys, a floppy-haired trumpet player named David, seems to have a soft spot for our zaftig heroine — convincing her to come out for a drink with the other guys, asking her to hang out with him on “a night that isn’t Shabbat” and finally, standing up for her when she needs it most.
In most coming-of-age tales, the fat girl is relegated to being the best friend or the kooky neighbor. If she does manage to achieve protagonist status, she is treated to a three-minute montage makeover that slims her down or masks her girth. “The First Time I Was 20” is that rare story in the post-“Shrek” embrace-the-ogre-in-you era that is brave enough to acknowledge that sometimes the ugly duckling doesn’t blossom into a swan. And since it also gives Hannah a Hollywood ending, you leave the theater feeling a little manipulated, but also inspired that the underdog had her day.
Leah Hochbaum is a freelance writer living in New York.