Film Review: Summer '03

A 16-year-old girl messes up before growing up in a bit of a missed opportunity of a filmmaking debut
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The message of Becca Gleason’s coming-of-age feature debut is that “sometimes we all fuck up—and that’s OK.” Well, yes, of course it is, but does fucking up have to be so shrill? Gleason has a director’s eye, and the messiness of her protagonist does not seep into her protagonist’s journey, which is compact and tied up nicely and doesn’t much exceed 90 minutes. But what a broad 90 minutes they are. Gleason’s talent behind the camera seems to be wasted on a mediocre story.

Jamie (a charismatic Joey King) is a 16-year-old girl sitting at the bedside of her dying grandmother (the too-briefly-shown June Squibb). Determined to be remembered no matter the cost, Grandma divulges to Jamie, as she does in different ways with all of her children and grandchildren, several secrets. Secret No. 1: Grandma had Jamie, whose mother is Jewish, secretly baptized as an infant. Discomfiting, unnerving, even alarming, but Grandma is of a different generation, after all, and Jamie’s family is irreligious, so we’ll let that one slide for the moment… Now for Secret No. 2, a meaning-of-life sort of utterance, a truth for which Grandma declares she wishes she had been better prepared. What Jamie needs to know, what will make her life rich, what she absolutely needs to learn, is…to…give a great blowjob.

That is Summer ’03. As Jamie’s family falls apart from the fallout of the other secrets sweet Granny imparts—Jamie’s father was sired by a strange man and Jamie’s young cousin Dylan is a homosexual (news to him) who should go somewhere to get “fixed”—Jamie looks to follow Grandma Dotty’s advice. There’s a sweet boy from school who likes the same Harry Potter books she loves, who stands up for her when she makes a fool of herself while trying to public-speak, and who is clearly besotted, but Jamie, being a 16-year-old girl, prefers to blow a man of mystery. Her choice falls on a seminary student soon to be ordained into the priesthood who shows zero compunction, puts up not even the barest semblance of a moral protest, when one night in a darkened playground Jamie unzips his pants and makes Grandma proud. In answer to her post-blowjob insecure bid for reassurance—“How was I?”—Luke (Val Kilmer’s son Jack, a talent in need of better material) declares she was “spectacular.”

Complications follow, all of them very loud, all with a “comedic” edge that just isn’t funny, as cruel as it to level the charge against the filmmaker. Gleason, who previously worked as an assistant on the NBC comedy “Community,” wrote the material and said Jamie is the sort of outspoken teenager she wishes she had been. Does she wish she had been a brat? Of course, a character must have flaws, and the strongest scene is arguably the one in which Jamie, unraveling after being rebuffed by Luke, is at her most flawed and takes her pain out on her friends at a party. Those lines are memorable because there are notes of truth behind Jamie’s nasty jokes. But that scene is also anomalous in a film that otherwise dramatizes the dysfunction between its characters with so much screeching and shrilling. If dysfunctional families do screech and shrill IRL, why spend an hour-and-a-half making pretend families screech and shrill if little is to be availed by the exercise? I came to understand why Jamie gravitates toward Luke. Forget the dreamboat hair and deep, dark eyes—the boy is quiet.

Just before Jamie and Luke embark on their romance, Jamie attends a party at the house of the sweet boy from school. They’re horsing around when the boy throws her into the pool. Jamie remains underwater for several beats. Watching the legs of her friends kick dreamily underwater. The light is yellowish bright and very soft. Her hair fans softly around her head. The moment is highly stylized, it’s visually interesting, and it offers a hint of a more reflective approach that could have been.

But then the sweet boy dives underwater to pull Jamie back to the surface. She’s pissed, and he thinks she’s angry because her phone was in her bra and now it’s wet and ruined. In voiceover, however, Jamie tells us she doesn’t care about her phone. She’s pissed that what got ruined was her moment of peace. I would agree.