As long as there are children who grow into adulthood via adolescence, there will always be coming-of-age stories. They may not be indicative of your experience, but they will speak to the universal ideas of growing up, shifting from an insular existence into the vastness of the world proper. They can take the shape of a group of friends going to see a dead body (Stand By Me (1986)), trying to save their home via buried treasure (The Goonies (1985)), or maybe reconciling the conflicting parts of yourself to achieve balance and prosperity (Turning Red (2022)). Writer/director Atusko Ishizuka (A Place Further Than the Universe (2018)) returns to the big screen with Goodbye, Don Glees! (グッバイ、ドン・グリーズ！), her tale of adventure, friendship, loss, and growth.
It’s the first summer since best friends Roma (Natsuki Hanae) and Toto (Yuki Kaji) parted ways for high school — Toto for Tokyo; Roma stayed home — and tradition dictates that while their community gathers to watch an extensive fireworks display, they will hold their own as they’ve always done, together. The pair never quite got along with other kids and, in keeping to themselves, dubbed their group DonGlees. Despite the excitement at their reunion, things are not as either left them, they discover, with Toto seeming more worldly and academically determined and Roma finding himself a new friend in Drop (Ayumu Murase). Despite these changes and some minor friction, the newly formed trio set about to partake in tradition, but none of their fireworks go off and the drone Roma purchased flies away. To make matters worse, the trio wake the next morning to discover that they’re being blamed for a wildfire ravaging a nearby section of the woods. Hoping that the lost drone may have captured footage that can clear their names, they set out to recover it, not realizing that with each step forward, their lives will be changed forever.
To provide a visual baseline, Don Glees is a mixture between the non-virtual aspects of Mamoru Hosoda’s BELLE (竜とそばかすの姫) and the magical realism of Ayumu Watanabe’s Fortune Favors Lady Nikko (漁港の肉子ちゃん), each released into theaters this year by GKids Films, as well. Ishizuka’s story is very much grounded in reality without any of the fantastical journeys, digital spaces, or talking forest creatures that occupy space in the aforementioned films. Yet, there is something undeniably magical about the way Ishizuka presents the world, as though infinite possibilities are happening everywhere all at once, we need only be brave enough to venture out to look. Their town is, itself, not particularly magnificent in design or presentation, but the forest through which the trio tromps is like a secret garden of beauty. It doesn’t particularly shine, though, until they take notice, at which point the audience is offered a different perspective on what the DonGlees see, pulling back so we can take in the total resplendence. There’s one moment early on in which the audience is shown a series of tributaries that look, due to their orientation, like Yggdrasil, the tree of life in Norse mythology. The ground is dark, the water awash in orange glow, the scene is, frankly, breathtaking (as so many of the nature sequences in the film are). I don’t think this is a coincidence either, given what we learn about the characters and how Roma namedrops Yggdrasil to his mother prior to the trio’s adventure. Ishizuka’s Don Glees is a world in which everything is connected, the energy of one thing flowing into another, continuing on in a different function of the life cycle.
When considered, not through view of the audience, but how Ishizuka constructs the world as it looks through her protagonists, the world really is a remarkable place in which possibilities go as far as your reach. Or, more precisely, your perceived reach. As children, our worlds tend to start small: our immediate family, our community, perhaps some relatives. You might travel to cities or towns outside your own, but not everyone travels outside their state or their country. When Drop mentions that he’d lived in Iceland with his grandfather for a time, Roma’s jaw-drops in shock as though Drop mentioned having previously lived on the moon. Drop’s response is not dismissive when he asks why it’s such a marvelous admission or achievement, rather, it’s a friendly challenge to Roma to shift his perception on what’s possible. Put another way, on TikTok recently, there’s been a trending sound about how, as an adult, you can just do things without permission. Adolescents often don’t realize that becoming an adult is precisely that: you don’t have to ask if you want to go somewhere or do something (within reason). This becomes the throughline for the emotional journey of Roma and Toto as Drop sees the excitement and frivolity in just about every obstacle that impends the newly formed DonGlees.
The switch between hilarity and tenderness is surprisingly smooth as the script explores not just the widening of worldview as one grows out of childhood, but the deepening vulnerability that comes with opening oneself to opportunity. This particular message comes via Drop, the excited-to-be-here newbie, who is at once the most reckless and the one with the most to lose. The reasoning as to why isn’t provided, the barest of information offered, yet it doesn’t matter. Drop’s purpose, within the script, is to push Roma and Toto in ways they’re too afraid to test, granting them both a gift they don’t realize they’re receiving until well into the adventure. As of this writing, I’m 41 years old and I can look back on the various summers I spent away at camp, shipped off because my father didn’t like us just sitting around the house when school was out. Even without photographic evidence, I can remember the feeling of dancing with my fellow campers to the Rocky Horror Picture Show soundtrack someone had. I can remember going to visit a small group of those I met the winter after, all of whom I’ve lost contact with now, yet still feel their kindness and connection more than 20 years later. I’ve known people like Drop who come into our lives briefly yet leave cavernous spaces in their wake. I doubt I was ever that to anyone, though, in a romantic nostalgic way, I do hope I’m wrong. So, Don Glees strikes a chord not because this coming-of-age tale makes idyllic this trio, but because it feels authentically true. Thankfully, Drop has an arc himself, never quite being reduced entirely to catalyst for Roma and Toto to reclaim their friendship with their whole hearts. In fact, the way that Ishizuka structures Don Glees, the narrative connection between the trio quite literally split me open, so surprisingly sweet and devastating as it is.
Though Goodbye, Don Glees! lacks the anachronistic musical elements of fellow GKids Film Inu-Oh and has none of the heart-shattering rawness of BELLE, Don Glees is deceptively powerful in its presentation of friendship, love, loss, and personal discovery. Not every adventure has to change the world at large, maybe it just has to start with changing you. By that measure, each step of the DonGlees moves them toward a world in which nothing is small and everything is possible. What a fantastic world that would be.
In select theaters September 14th, 18th, and 20th only.
For general information, head to GKids Films’s Goodbye, Don Glees! webpage.
For information on a screening near you, head to the official Goodbye, Don Glees! website.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.