Originally slated for a 2020 SXSW premiere, musical comedy Best Summer Ever from first-time feature directing partners Michael Parks Randa and Lauren Smitelli instead makes its world debut at the 2021 festival. Part Grease homage, part Disney Channel wannabe, part Footloose, the plucky film follows two kids at the end of their summer camp romance coming to terms with reality: he’s a high school football star hiding that he loves dancing and she’s the child of nomads with no means of staying in contact. Each seems destined to hide who they really are until a twist of fate puts them back on their path together. In totality, Best Summer Ever is a sugary confection: absolutely sweet and bound to give you a stomach ache from its pure positivity.
The cheese in Best Summer Ever is enough to give you lactose issues after the opening number, but you’re going to stick it out because there’s something just joyful and positive about the entire film. Much of it comes from the direction by Randa and Smitelli who use tracking shots enough that you’re almost swept up in the dance numbers and whose steady hands and blocking make the staging of talking scenes absolutely natural coming in or out of one of the eight song-and-dance sequences. The story itself is almost like an extended sketch at summer camp, utilizing the familiar to make something of your own. One song finds Shannon DeVido’s Sage explaining to a couple of girls about this boy she met over the summer, while Rickey Alexander Wilson’s Tony does the same. It was about halfway through when I realized what the reference was (though the song is quite different) and it was about this moment that a character looks at the camera and name-dropped Grease. Without that summer camp sketch vibe, the joke would’ve landed flat, groans aplenty. Yet, there’s something entirely wholesome about the song and the story of their burgeoning-yet-star-crossed love that you forgive the narrative for most of its weaker moments. The largest reason for that is DeVido. She’s been working as an actor since 2006 doing guest spots on shows like Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, a few short films, and was a panelist on The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore, so you may have seen her work, but Best Summer Ever should put her on the map. She’s an incredible singer, her comedic timing is perfection, and amid quite a few guest star appearances, she steals the show over and over. Wilson is fine as Tony, easily communicating without verging into overacting the youthful trials of balancing personal needs with external wants, but DeVido just outshines everyone in every scene she’s in.
So here’s the bit where I point something out that, to be honest, shouldn’t be necessary but gets to the heart of Zeno Mountain Farm’s mission: the cast is a mixture of individuals with disabilities and without. This fact, however, is non-essential to the story and is continually played as such. According to their website, Zeno Mountain Farm started off a film camp in 2005 called The Cheshire Project where they could bring people together to make films to show off to their friends. As they began making them, they realized that few films not only featured actors with disabilities but possessed narratives that didn’t put spotlights on the disabilities. The fact that their work is considered a revelation is, on its own, frustrating given the context of disability in media. People are people are people and deserve the same respect as anyone else. Are skill sets different? Sure, but that shouldn’t prevent anyone from attempting to do what they feel meant to do.
When it comes to Hollywood, the battle between storytelling and authenticity rages with enormous consequences. Look at how well Sia’s Music (2021) has been received for not just casting an able-bodied actor in the lead role, but for designing sequences that would create trauma and discomfort involving the titular character Music, an individual with autism. If you don’t think that representation matters, I encourage you to check out Jenni Gold’s fantastic documentary CinemAbility: The Art of Inclusion which explores the complex relationship between individuals with disabilities and cinematic representation. To have a disability, deformity, or some other figure outside the social norm in cinema makes you a villain, someone to worship as a “hero,” or someone in need of saving. In Best Summer Ever, there’s not a single mention of any difference between cast members because, frankly, it has no bearing on the story. This is positive representation and should be lauded. This cast is allowed to be the hero or the villain, student or authority figure, just like any other high school comedy. Also, not for nothing, it’s a wonderful addition that the entire film has descriptive text, making the welcoming vibe of inclusion start from the jump.
Best Summer Ever may not have the catchiest songs and it’s storyline might be as average as any other Disney Channel program (although Sage’s pot-selling lesbian moms might make this more of a Freeform or Hulu joint), but you’ll still find yourself swept up by it. More importantly, the things which matter take center stage over that which doesn’t: the story. Representation matters and the way it’s presented matters just as much. Randa and Smitelli’s film proves that there are plenty of talented actors out there just waiting to be greenlight for an upcoming project. Heck, why not let Zeno Mountain Farm serve as producers. They clearly understand this better than anyone.
Screening during the 2021 SXSW Film Festival beginning March 18th, 2021.
Available for streaming on VOD and digital April 27th, 2021.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.