“A film that stands squarely on its own, unafraid of its craft, and from a director that has a keen eye for striking an absorbing atmosphere while staring into the void and asking questions about the future.”
by Ken B.
We’ve come to expect a kind of overblown explosiveness to stories about teen romances. Something emotionally exaggerated, far flung, and a cacophony of unrestrained bravura, but look away for a second and Last Summer comes along, a film so emotionally lowkey, local in scope, and restrained to the nth degree that it is everything that you not only do not expect from your love stories with teenagers, but many with adults as well. There are no tear-stained monologues – contrarily, most of the film’s exposition is given through tête-à-tête that writer/director Mark Thiedeman only employs when he feels it is absolutely necessary. A majority of the film’s approach is not dissimilar to The Tree of Life, where a connection between characters and their relationship with nature is one of the overarching and critical themes.
Last Summer is set, rather obviously, in the summer. It is somewhere in the rural American South – Arkansas, I believe. The story is told through the perspective of a high school senior named Luke (Samuel Pettit), who’s shifting through the end of summer school to fix up his grades for the classes he failed during his year – he’s more of an athlete than an academic, he says. But another thing is on Luke’s mind, and that is of the impending departure of his longtime boyfriend Jonah (Sean Rose). Jonah is his opposite – bad at sports but safely intelligent, he’s headed off to college while Luke is presumably stuck in their miniscule hometown. The two of them have been together forever, and they’ve known each other since early childhood – the relationship kind of just evolved from the friendship. But now, here they are, at the proverbial fork in the road, their last summer. It is a sweep through nostalgia, a curtailing of the present, and the looming question of the future.
Thiedeman is radically disinterested in the fact that his two main characters are gay — it’s not a coming out story, and the word “gay” is never uttered once throughout the movie’s entire 73 minutes. While one could argue that it stretches the bounds of believability that seemingly everyone in a random small, close-knit rural Deep South community would be at the least oblivious and at the most accepting of two of their teenage male residents in a long-term relationship, it doesn’t serve as a major hurdle for the film, because queer politics are not a topic on the table for discussion. Backstory is only introduced a few shakes at a time, and only in throwaway lines issued in passive voice.
In place of extensive dialogue is a very contemplative substitute. Thiedeman focuses extensively on lengthy sequences of the outdoors – gardens, flowers, lakesides, and trees (lots and lots of trees). Previously in this review I made a comparison to The Tree of Life. It has been established by now that I did not like that film nearly as much as the broad critical consensus did, and part of the reason I give for that in my writeup was its static, seemingly unneeded imagery of ambient focus, from outer space to, once again, lots and lots of trees. The reason that Thiedeman pulls it off while Malick leaves me irritated is that Last Summer’s employment of this type of artistic approach is done fully contextually and with a definitive, readable meaning. Take for example a scene where Luke wakes up in the morning – the alarm clock goes off, he stirs in bed, and then Thiedeman cuts to the house’s exterior, with shots of the plants in the garden and barreled down on by the growing sunlight. It establishes mood, aesthetic, and setting, and cinematographer David Goodman deserves equal credit in the natural look of the movie.
Last Summer, despite running only an hour and some change, requires a fair amount of patience, but it’s not hard to obtain that, considering the enrapturing visuals and compelling pairing depicted. We have characters cast against a summer taking place in a sparse, rural, and slightly run-down Norman Rockwell universe – main streets, barbershops, and baseball gloves are given primary time in the frame. We watch it and plunge into this place, this time, despite the overall thinness of the script, which is thin by some combination of underwriting and artistic intent. Nevertheless, here is a film that stands squarely on its own, unafraid of its craft, and from a director that has a keen eye for striking an absorbing atmosphere while staring into the void and asking questions about the future. Luke and Jonah are shown to face an intimidating prospect – wanting to know what comes next in their otherwise ironclad romance. Thiedeman makes us want to know, too.
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LAST SUMMER WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY MARK THIEDEMAN STARRING SAMUEL PETTIT AND SEAN ROSE 73 MINUTES NO MPAA RATING