‘Summerland’ Suffers from a Lack of Ambition
The coming-of-age story slash road trip of Summerland is a pleasant experience. It’s just not a very memorable one.
Summerland must be one of the most relaxed movies released this year. A road trip slash coming-of-age story focused on three graduates making their way to a once-in-a-lifetime music festival in Nevada, it contains acres of charm but only yards of wisdom. While featuring three affable performances from its young leads, its lack of ambition hinders it from being the next big coming-of-age story.
It starts online, with the young Victoria talking to a prospective date named Shawn (Dylan Playfair) on a Christian dating site. They agree to meet at Summerland. The only catch… Victoria doesn’t exist: she is the joke turned awkward reality of the shy and gay Bray (Chris Ball). He is attending the festival with his best friend Oliver (Rory J. Saper), a British ex-pat whose visa is expiring, and his girlfriend Stacey (Maddie Phillips), who has no idea Oliver is leaving the country soon.
These are very young and spirited people. They don’t want to focus on how their lies will hurt those around them. They just want to rush to a good time and hope that a strong combination of alcohol and drugs will paper over the cracks. But life doesn’t really work like that. Sooner or later you will have to come to terms with who you are and what you really want to be.
The best coming-of-age stories are sneakily profound, using the genre to make genuine comments about the pain and confusion of being alive. Summerland, while rooting its conflicts in key questions of identity and belonging, cannot find an interesting way to draw these emotions out. Additionally, with the dialogue relentlessly focused on either the plot or banal elements, the characters are unable to really make their mark.
Ultimately, the film neither revels in the pleasures of the road movie — contrasting eager explorers against the vastness and beauty and strangeness of Americana — or the aching awkwardness of contemporary coming-of-age films, like the deeply cathartic cringe of Superbad and Booksmart. Instead, it delivers a perfectly enjoyable yet unmemorable experience.
At nearly every turn it feels like directing duo Lankyboy could do more, but choose not to. For example, a drug trip on mushrooms is rendered almost exactly how one might imagine it: fuzzy colours and shapes rendering the landscape semi-unreal. By neither making it funny or profound, the scene seems to have no point at all. Likewise, a trip to San Francisco, long-known as a key hub for LGBTQ+ people, does touch upon its storied and unique history, but with none of the depth to really connect these people to the places they are visiting.
The challenge seems to be in combining the coming-of-age story within the road-trip format in a mere space of 82 minutes. The great road trip movies are usually quite long: the great American Honey, for example, was nearly three hours! There’s simply not much time to do both properly in Summerland, giving us a bare-bones experience without the richness one expects from either genre.