‘Best Summer Ever’: Film Review | SXSW 2021

Boy meets girl in this high school musical with an emphasis on inclusivity, directed by Michael Parks Randa and Lauren Smitelli.

Irresistibly likable musical Best Summer Ever offers the wholesome tale of Sage and Tony, two teenagers in love, winningly played by Shannon DeVido and Ricky Wilson Jr. respectively. These two crazy kids are perfect for each other, but they still must face an assortment of adolescent tribulations, including mean cheerleaders, deciding who to take to the homecoming dance and worrying about whether one’s pot-growing moms might get busted by the cops.

What is definitely not a problem, however, is the fact that pretty Sage is a wheelchair user while Tony isn’t, or that at least half of the whole cast, kids and grown-ups alike, have a range of physical and mental disabilities. Instead, this profoundly inclusive work posits a world where it would be as utterly unnecessary to discuss someone’s different physical form or mental abilities as it would be to mention that Sage is white and Tony is Black. Why should anyone care anyway seems to be the unspoken question, especially when we’re all having so much fun.

The Bottom Line

Just roll with it.

Although some might argue that not mentioning anyone’s difference is a kind of erasure in itself, it’s hard not to get swept up in the cast and crew’s joyful insouciance. Plus, the cheeky showtunes, co-written by onscreen villain MuMu and executive producer Peter Halby, are a hoot.

Viewers will have to take the characters’ word, sung in the opening number, that the summer that just past was the best ever; we never see what happened to make it so great. Instead, summer camp counselors Sage and Tony, both playing high-school seniors here, did all their meeting cute and getting together before the action starts in late August as they say goodbye to the younger children and co-workers they befriended at dance- and music-focused Camp Lakeview in Vermont. The two lovers also bid each other a fond farewell, expecting to be separated for a year, as Sage prepares to drive off with her moms, Gillian (Holly Palmer) and Kate (Eileen Grubba), and Tony heads back to New York to resume studies at his performing arts high school.

Apparently, every year Kate and Gillian have chosen a new place to park the family camper van and raise a marijuana crop. This year they’ve chosen a small town in Upstate New York, and Sage is keen to go to the local school like any other “normal” kid instead of being homeschooled. She proves immediately popular with her peers, but before her new friends can even say, “tell me more, tell me more” about her summer vacation, Beth (MuMu, very funny), the psychotically jealous head cheerleader, works out that the cute dancer boy she met at camp is the same Tony everyone knows at their school. Shockingly, he is not the drama and dance nerd he led Sage to believe him to be, but the school’s star quarterback whom everyone is counting on to pull the school out of a 25-year-long losing streak.

The fact that the hero’s shameful secret is that he’s really good at kicking a football instead of ballet is just one of several amusing inversions of expectations that pepper the film. Another is that while a few famous faces (including Benjamin Bratt and his adorable daughter Sophia, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard) put in fleeting appearances, the bulk of the performance lifting is in the hands of the younger actors. Wilson, DeVido and MuMu with their more extensive stage experience (the two women have especially strong voices) get most of the screen time, but there’s some very fine clowning from supports such as Jacob Waltuck as a rival teammate who longs to supplant Tony and Emily Kranking as an excitable cheerleader with a scream that could wake the dead.

The final football field finale, with quick cutaways that give a chance to shine to just about every participant in the film, including those who worked mostly behind the cameras, is hokey as all get out, hooky as a bait and tackle shop, and tear-inducingly adorable.  

Venue: South by Southwest Film Festival (Spotlight)
Production: A Zeno Mountain Farm presentation
Directors: Michael Parks Randa, Lauren Smitelli
Cast: Shannon DeVido, Ricky Wilson Jr., MuMu, Jacob Waltuck, Emily Kranking, Holly Palmer, Eileen Grubba, Bradford Haynes, Ajani ‘AJ’ Murray, Lawrence Carter-Long, Phil Lussier, Eri Folan, Terra Macintosh, Sophia Bratt, Benjamin Bratt, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Peter Sarsgaard, Christine Bruno, Leah Romond
Screenwriters: Will Halby, Terra Mackintosh, Andrew Pilkington, Michael Parks Randa, Lauren Smitelli
Producers: Terra Mackintosh, Andrew Pilkington, Leah Romond, Jake Sharpless, Katie White
Executive producers: Michael Barnett, Becky Blodgett, Bill Benneson, Amy Brenneman, Harley Carroll, Jamie Lee Curtis, Ted Danson, Mary Steenburgen, Dominique Dauwe, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Peter Sarsgaard, Ila Halby, Peter Halby, Susan Halby, Will Halby, Vanessa Halby, Ken Hirsch, Angela Howard, George Loenig, Kimbrough Towles, Abhilash Patel, Jeff Pechter, Stacie Pitts, Rod Pitts Michael Parks Randa, Kat Taylor, Tom Steyer

Director of photography: Chris Westlund
Editors: Sam Adelman, Frank Snider, Michael Parks Randa
Production designer: Laurel Sager
Costume designer: Shari Bisnaught
Music and score: Jamie Lawrence
Original music and lyrics: MuMu, Peter Halby
Choreography: Frances Orr
Casting: Ila Halby, Terra Mackintosh

78 minutes