Nostalgia is a tricky thing. It has a way of sugar-coating things – songs, books, toys, even experiences – so that all we remember is the way we think we felt about it. The older we get, the more frequent we look back, and more often those memories blur to create that nostalgic sensation. There’s a lot of that feeling packed into writer/director Becca Gleason’s (Community) debut feature Summer ’03, which tracks one week in the life of the Winkle family through the memory of Jamie (Joey King of Wish I Was Here) as she and her family endure the fallout from their matriarch passing. Hilarious, touching, bittersweet, and unabashedly honest, Summer ’03 is a breakout film for Gleason with a coming-of-age story that feels at once universal, while executed with an underseen (and much needed) feminine perspective.
Summertime in 2003 is a whirl of moments for Jaime Winkle: parties with friends, ice cream, sleeping past noon, devouring the latest Harry Potter, and all the other trappings of a teenage life without worry. All of that changes when her dying grandmother Dotty (June Squibb of Nebraska) decides to impart some final thoughts to Jaime and her family. What should be a moment of thoughtful contemplation as one life comes to an end is utterly upended by Dotty’s series of manipulative revelations. As the family contends with the bombshells and are planning the funeral, Jaime is suddenly thrust into a self-awakening she doesn’t know how to navigate.
Summer ’03 might be Gleason’s first feature, yet every moment radiates all of her collective experience from her years in television. This isn’t a film that where one part holds up the others; rather, all the parts – like script, direction performance, and sound – pull together creates a lasting impression on audiences. Two prime examples of this take place within the first 15 minutes of the film: the opening montage and Dotty’s confessions. In the former, Jamie narrates what summer means to her while the audience views moments matching her language. Through strong editing and delivery by King, it’s less expositional and more exploratory in the way it sets the tone for the rest of the film. Light and airy, the audience sees teens partying and sleeping in, Jaime reading and going for a swim; that is, until the tone shifts and we meet Jaime who’s alone, reading a book outside of the hospital. With this sequence, Gleason establishes that while the tone and speed of Summer is breezy, filled with a youthful POV, it’s not going to be all sunshine and rainbows. In a later scene, when Dotty begins revealing her secrets, a scene which should be somber and serious given the larger context of the scene, Squibb ensures that even an innocent-looking granny can manage a bit of bile from a sweet-sounding tongue. The song In the Hall of the Mountain King by Edvard Grieg – a playful tune which increases in rhythm and various its pitch as it continues – provides the perfect backdrop as each member of Jaime’s family is told something more vicious than the last. In the former, Gleason plays up the drama, whereas in the latter, she plays up the humor. As life is never just one thing, Gleason ensures that the audience recognizes early on that Summer is the same: a complicated mess of joy and sorrow. A technical choice she accomplishes with aplomb.
But what about her direction? Though most of Summer is shot in a traditional mid-range style, the camera more often appears to float, rather than sit stationary, enabling the shots in any range to feel almost documentary-like as though Gleason is observing the Winkles during a particularly trying week, instead of recording a cast practiced with script and staging. Especially since the film follows Jaime’s perspective, the somewhat documentarian approach makes the story feel more authentic and alive. Interestingly, even when a few, more stylistic shots are used – as in the scene in which the camera spins 360-degrees as actors King, Andrea Savage (Veep), and Erin Darke (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) chase after a car – that feeling of observation and inclusion never disappears. That particular shot impresses for the way it captures the chaos of what’s occurring within the car, as well as outside.
As mentioned previously, the whole of Summer astounds because of its multiple working parts. The last of which is the outstanding performances from the cast. While touched on briefly above, it’s important to note that there’s not a single disingenuous moment. They speak like a family, often over and on-top of each other, and their behavior in this heightened state of emotional turmoil is, while ridiculous as times, never unbelievable. King deserves the majority of the praise as she presides over the story, but Savage and Paul Scheer (The Disaster Artist) as her parents are relatable and grounded. Darke, as her somewhat neurotic Aunt Hope, and Logan Medina (in his cinematic debut) as her younger cousin Dylan offer moments of quiet reassurance amidst the craziness for Jaime. Acting as Jaime’s friends are Kelly Lamor Wilson (The Case for Christ) and Stephen Ruffin (Love Is_), neither of whom are given much to do, yet make grand impressions. Jack Kilmer (Woodshock) has a heartier supporting role and presents his seminary almost-graduate Luke as not the worst kind of man, but a romantic stereotype given life. Alone, the performances are good, but in concert, they induce strong audience reactions.
Don’t make the mistake of underestimating Summer ’03. It doesn’t seem like much, just a simple coming-of-age story where the main character undergoes necessary, often greatly uncomfortable trials to become something more than they were, but you’d be wrong. Sure, it’s all that while being touching and sweet, but it’s also hilarious and honest. With more than a few narrative surprises that pull no punches, it’s an opportunity for a coming-of-age story from a woman’s perspective in front of and behind the camera, an occurrence that’s in short supply and audiences would be better served to experience. So when you head to the theater as Fall begins to take shape, give in to the nostalgia and head back to Summer ’03, you won’t regret it.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.