First Refusal

In the surreal world of First Refusal, we follow the emotional journey of a young girl who grapples with grief, forced to confront the pain of loss head-on.

Burdened by the recent passing of her beloved brother, she is haunted by the memories of their shared past, all within a unique sanctuary of her own design– a memory palace where she has trapped her brother’s spirit. Within this ethereal realm, the boundaries of reality blur as she relives cherished moments they once shared.

However, cracks soon appear in her creation, and the line between reality and her memories start to blur. Is she reliving cherished moments or keeping her brother against his will?

In a series of surreal visuals that ebb and flow like a fever dream, we follow them on exploration of grief’s complexity. They gradually come to realize an important truth: in order to truly heal and find solace, they must learn to let go.

Driven by evocative imagery, raw performances, and a hauntingly beautiful original music score that matches the dreamlike quality of the film’s atmosphere, First Refusal takes us on a journey that confronts the natural impermanence of life.

  • courtney sanello
    John Wick, Saturday in the Park, Garbage Bag of Broken Bottles, Legally Drugged, B.O.O.B.S., The Mockumentary, Changelings, Homewrecker
  • Courtney Sanello
    John Wick, Saturday in the Park, Legally Drugged, Garbage Bag of Broken Bottles, B.O.O.B.S., The Mockumentary, Changelings, Homewrecker
  • Courtney Sanello
    John Wick, Saturday in the Park, Legally Drugged, Garbage Bag of Broken Bottles, B.O.O.B.S., The Mockumentary, Changelings, Homewrecker
  • E James Ford
    Key Cast
    Gotham, Happy! Pioneer One, Pokemon, Toy Cop, The Donkey King, The Christmas Witch
  • Courtney Sanello
    Key Cast
    John Wick, Saturday in the Park, Legally Drugged, Garbage Bag of Broken Bottles, B.O.O.B.S., The Mockumentary, Changelings, Homewrecker
  • Caroline Mariko Stucky
    Director of Photography
    America (Re)Mixed, Muted Wails, Only a Dream, Us, Benighted, 836M Artist Residency, Rising Lotus, Battle Rattle, Zen Brownie, Stag, Finding Her Beat, Hearts and Hands,
  • Project Type:
    Experimental, Short, Web / New Media
  • Genres:
    Psychological Horror, Experimental, Drama, Sci-Fi
  • Runtime:
    7 minutes 45 seconds
  • Completion Date:
    August 30, 2023
  • Country of Origin:
    United States
  • Country of Filming:
    United States
  • Language:
  • Shooting Format:
    Digital, Sony FS7
  • Aspect Ratio:
  • Film Color:
  • First-time Filmmaker:
  • Student Project:
  • Shawna Shea Women in Film Foundation Award
    Worcester, Massachusetts
    United States
    September 23, 2023
    World Premiere
    2023 Recipient of the Shawna Shea Women in Film Foundation Award (Screened at Shawna Shea Festival, but was not in the festival)
Director Biography - courtney sanello

Courtney Sanello is a multi-hyphenate creative award-winning screenwriter who thrives in an environment of “no’s.” First Refusal marks (Shawna Shea Women in Film Foundation) Courtney Sanello's directorial debut. The SAG-AFTRA actor is a signatory producer and founder of Baby Shark Productions. She studied the Meisner Technique at The William Esper Studio and graduated magna cum laude from Emory University’s Goizueta Business School, double majoring in Marketing and Organization & Management. A long-standing member of New York Women in Film & Television (NYWIFT), Courtney is a born and bred New Yorker and most peaceful near the water.
@courtneysanello @firstrefusalfilm

Add Director Biography
Director Statement

As 2023’s sole recipient of the Shawna Shea Film Festival’s Women Film Foundation Award, I had the opportunity to showcase my directorial film debut of my own design. I felt it was my duty to not only honor Shawna Shea’s spirit and legacy, but to also to creatively challenge myself in the most extreme way. That meant taking on not just multiple roles of Director, Producer, Writer, Actor, Production Designer and Storyboard artist; but also revealing my greatest vulnerability: being openly honest with sharing the deepest darkest parts of my soul and the demons that live inside me and publicly sharing them. It’s scary.

FIRST REFUSAL was shot twice; the first attempt not matching my vision, thus making all footage unsalvageable. Many colleagues advised that “sometimes you have to lower your expectations.” My response was, “Yes. Sometimes.”

With Court in FIRST REFUSAL, I wanted to create a character - a lost soul - with an extraordinarily resilient spirit who chooses to live in her own manufactured reality to be with the person she loves and needs most, her soulmate and brother, Ken.

There are several universal themes captured in FIRST REFUSAL: Letting go of your most precious object in order to grow, dependency; whether it is a codependent relationship or substance abuse, and the painful transformation from self-denial to self-awareness.

The use of strong visual imagery was the primary driver to communicate FIRST REFUSAL’S story, in an effort to not come off as overly dramatic. The negative space of having minimal dialogue is purely intentional; breathing life into film’s strength as a visual medium, “to show, not tell.”

I initially created storyboards to establish the world and style of FIRST REFUSAL, only inserting dialogue afterwards when absolutely necessary to drive the story. I was very militant in excising any hint of exposition, cutting back dialogue up until and even during our two days of filming. The language is conversational and relatable, as if it's any other day of banter between two siblings.

But ultimately, at its core, this is a film about love, about holding onto something so much that it prevents your own personal growth, and about how trauma can force an individual into a new stage of development, forging their own path of their choosing.

- Courtney Sanello