There’s a strange sense of freedom that comes over us in our youth every summer. Maybe it’s the longer stretches of daylight, the rising heat, or lack of parental supervision as they toil away at their jobs. Whatever it is, it instills an annual hankering for mischief and revelry that lasts for months. Writer/director Kyle Wilamowski’s feature debut All Summers End (originally touring festivals as Grass Stains), for the most part, successfully captures this sense of autonomy and self-discovery during a time in which memories are made and choices seem infinite. Wilamowski daringly imbues the stereotypical teen drama with a morality tale exploring loss and the rippling consequences that follow. Filled with solid performances from leads Kaitlyn Dever (Justified) and Tye Sheridan (Ready Player One), along with some impressive directorial work, All Summers End checks many of the boxes to qualify as a timeless film to be appreciated by all ages. However, it’s sold as a tale of lost love and, unfortunately, the baggage carrying that weight isn’t built to manage it.
Conrad Stevens (Sheridan) is a somewhat complicated kid. The son of a deceased Army soldier, he’s the sole focus of doting mother (Paula Malcomson), which incites within him a desire to be gone from the house even before sun-up. If he’s not wandering through the woods, he’s off with long-time friends Hunter (Austin Abrams) and Tim (Ryan Lee) running amok through town. That is, until Grace Turner (Dever) boldly asks Conrad what he’d say if she told him that he was going to be her first love. It’s a courageous statement, one that leaves Conrad speechless, and it sets in motion a love story that each will need when tragedy strikes. A tragic incident that will tear Grace’s family apart. An incident that Conrad’s right in the center of.
Wilamowski brilliantly structures All Summers End as a recollection of an older Conrad (American God’s Pablo Schreiber) inspired by his own teenage son’s potential first love. Doing so empowers the film to lean into its more ambient, philosophical moments – close-up establishing shots of rural landscape, Conrad’s younger self musing about connection between personal history and objects, and even sequences of frozen forest life – as memory rarely remembers the exact nature of a thing; rather, there’re flashes of remembrance, along with a resonant feeling. As such, All Summers End possesses a pervasive innocent nostalgia as the audience journeys along with older Conrad on this adventure of love lost. While this may suggest All Summers End drips with sugary sweetness, it’s far more of a bittersweet tale which keeps its hope around the edges. Again, another benefit given by using the conceit of older Conrad’s memory as the filter for the tale. Additionally, Wilamowski’s camerawork will, from time-to-time, shift from a more stereotypical static long range or close-up to a fluid style, moving the camera in the way our mind’s eye flows from thought to thought, moment to moment. Doing so brings a dreamlike quality to the scenes while also suggesting a stronger connection for Conrad between this moment and another. It’s also worth noting what the camera doesn’t show – this is a love story, after all – and Wilamowski keeps things as chaste, visually, as possible. While this may seem inauthentic to some, given the focus on memory as the delivery mechanism, it speaks volumes about what Grace meant to Conrad. It’s an excellent example of “show, don’t tell” in storytelling as the audience infers the significance of moments without being fully privy to them.
Though these narrative designs are intelligent, the cast is what brings them to life. Sheridan and Dever lead the story with performances that are deeply evocative once the audience grasps hold of who they are as individuals. Wilamowski’s script doesn’t offer much in the way of set-up or build-up, instead requiring the audience to just accept relationships as presented. It’s a tricky notion, and something that ends up hurting the conclusion, but it makes the performances no less engaging. What will surprise audiences most is how Conrad’s a reactor for the majority of the story, frequently opting to go-along rather than make choices. Considering how heavy the narrative revolves around consequences of choice, this is not altogether unusual, but it will take audiences time to get used to it. Sheridan’s portrayal of Conrad is incredibly confident making the apprehensive nature of Conrad feel like that of a teenager who feels unsettled within his bones. Conversely, Dever’s portrayal of forth-coming, emboldened, and fearlessly rigid Grace is heart-wrenching to behold. It’s a love the audience knows won’t last, yet Grace’s determination to love, and be loved by, Conrad in spite of her tragedy makes her appear grand, despite being an unknowing victim. Her’s is a betrayal we see coming from miles away, yet through the performances from the leads, the story remains compelling.
Amidst all the innocence, a looming specter of dread imbues each scene from the moment the love story takes its rather dark turn into a morality play. Despite some really thoughtful scenes whose deeper emotional context is only revealed through quiet, seemingly unimportant moments, the disparate themes of first love and consequences never truly gel. Wilamowski deserves commendation for inducing some real emotional surprises for the audience and the characters, however, the overshadowing sense of dread greatly contradicts both the thematic aura of inculpability which All Summers End desperately tries to maintain while dealing with a story of intimate betrayal and loss. This review won’t reveal the inciting incident, but All Summers End wants to present it as a situation where there exists a grey area for Conrad. In this regard, All Summers End is overstepping its reach. One can’t remain innocent while simultaneously burdened by guilt. As such, the conclusion of the film fails to deliver the emotionally satisfying ending that the characters deserve vs. what the audience wants since it’s so determined to leave the audience with an uplifting, hopeful feeling.
The supporting performances, solid directorial work, and compelling concept make All Summers End a film worth seeing, even if the resolution of the picture will likely draw ire from the audience. Wilamowski sets up this tale as a recollection of lost love, yet its telling uncovers something far more insidious as a catalyst. With so much discussion of consequences and their ability to reverberate through time, even as our narrator tells the story, the lack of visible consequences cheapens All Summers End in a way that detracts from all the wonderful parts within it. It’s bold, for certain, and perhaps the ending could not be adjusted in order to maintain some sense of the innocence surrounding the narrative, but without some real sense of impact, it all feels like an exercise in purposeless melancholy.
Final Score: 3 out of 5.