Best Summer Ever (2021)

Directed by Michael Parks Randa and Lauren Smitelli
Written by Will Halby, Terra Mackintosh, Michael Parks Randa, Andrew Pilkington & Lauren Smitelli

Diversity has long been an issue in Hollywood, with recent years bringing things forward slightly with recognition of black-led films, and female-led films. The distance we’ve come in both representation in screen and in awards and film discussion is great to see, even if we have that much further to go. However, there are some sidelined who are still not seen nearly as often on screen as we should, and that is people with disabilities. Crip Camp was a stirring, Academy Award nominated documentary from last year which does a wonderful job chronicling the struggle for equal rights for people with disabilities, but this year, Best Summer Ever takes it one step further and presents a film, a musical no less, which highlights and stars many performers both with and without disabilities. It’s small, but it’s a step forward.

After falling in love at dance camp, Sage (Shannon DeVido) and Tony (Rickey Alexander Wilson) go their separate ways. Tony, back to his rural town where he is the star kicker for a struggling high school football town, hiding his love and passion for dance out of potential embarrassment. Sage, back to her moms nomadic lifestyle as marijuana growers, forced to move after each harvest to avoid the law. But when their ride breaks down, Sage finds herself in the same small town as Tony, attending the same small high school. Rumors fly immediately, as the young couple discover not everything was as it seemed at summer camp, and popular lead cheerleader Beth (Madeline Rhodes) schemes ways to separate the new couple.

There are many elements to consider when evaluating any movie, but with Best Summer Ever, I found myself considering them in new ways, which was both refreshing and challenging. I think a movie like Best Summer Ever challenging my view of what and who a movie can be is one of its greatest strengths. From a conventional standpoint, this is just another teen musical/comedy, which follows many of the same, well-trod tropes from the genre. The songs aren’t particularly great or catchy, with a few feeling eerily similar to pop songs we’ve heard before. And not all the performances are all that polished, with some of the low budget acting talent you expect from many a small movie. The story is also a little bit over the top in its dramatic constructions.

But I loved it! There is a certain level of passion and enthusiasm shown throughout, mostly by the more than willing cast, that is without a doubt infectious. This is it’s greatest strength. There is such vitality in the film that you can’t help but be swept away by the story, and most importantly the performers. They are all clearly having a blast making this film, and it really comes through in the finished product, so bravo to the filmmakers and everyone involved in this project. Those include some notable Executive Producers, a few of whom have cameos, like Maggie Gyllenhaal, Peter Sarsgaard, and Benjamin Bratt. But the cameos are tastefully done, not stealing any thunder in a “hey, look at me!” kind of way. There is something truly fulfilling and heartwarming to see the type of casual representation in the film.

In almost all cases, the people with disabilities are not highlighted as such. They are just other characters in the film. It’s important to highlight their stories and to do so in a manner that does not put the disability first, does not segregate them from people without disabilities, and does not lean on the pity or sympathy of the audience to earn their interest in the story. Best Summer Ever achieves this. And despite not being the strongest narrative film, certainly not one that I would recommended on that merit, it was a joy to watch from start to finish, with the type of energy I wished I saw in more movies. And lastly, I wish the two football radio announcers could be the announcers in every sports movie. Perhaps the most enjoyable moments in the film.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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