If woke Twitter collectively directed a movie, it would look something like “Summertime” (opening in theaters today), a facile, if superficially novel, attempt at a Lin-Manuel Mirandan urban tapestry.
Director Carlos Lopez Estrada cast his film almost entirely with spoken-word poets from Los Angeles, endeavoring to capture a city symphony through the metered voices of its 27 ethnically and culturally diverse performers playing versions of themselves—youthful strivers, podcasters, hustling rappers, street artists and fast-food workers, among others, navigating the hurly-burly of contemporary life with beats, rhymes and mutual aid. Borrowing the narrative logic—if little of the authenticity—of Richard Linklater’s 1991 landmark “Slacker,” Lopez interlocks the stories of his young Angelinos as they literally bump into each other, letting the city’s entropy decide which character to follow next. One character, Tyris (Tyris Winter), spends the entire film navigating chichi eateries and changing restaurant storefronts in a daylong attempt to find a cheeseburger—a bit of satire that falls flat because the concept of a cheeseburger shortage in L.A. is patently absurd.
While Linklater’s portrait of Austin through the people who lived there felt illuminating at every turn, Estrada’s formal experiment is content to skim surfaces, relying on sentimentality, platitudes and internet lingo as his nonprofessional actors weave their performance poetry into a script filled with such hoary lines as “I got a pocketful of dreams, and no one’s holding me down.”
The problem with the whole world being a stage—the fundamental core of Estrada’s blend of mannered whimsy—is that at no point does any character act like a flesh-and-blood person. They’re sanctimonious archetypes of an enlightened culture, always righteous and always right. They delight, as does Estrada, in mocking the antediluvian squares and bigots and authority figures that lurk around the movie’s periphery, straw men and straw cops set up to be swiftly embarrassed and toppled like so many bowling pins.
There are scant moments, like a montage of the actors reflecting on what the word “home” means, or the queer poet Tyris recording a an emotional cellphone video about his ostracization from his family, where “Summertime” approaches a deeper level of engagement, but most of Estrada’s vision is simply painful to watch. The movie’s sense of rebelliousness is juvenile and self-congratulatory. It’s hard to hear a city’s wonderful and distinctive noise over all the self-administered rounds of applause.
Characters of far more complexity emerge in this weekend’s other seasonally set opening, “Summer of ’85,” the latest from the great French filmmaker Francois Ozon. With songs by the Cure and Bananarama (“Cruel Summer,” natch) evoking the ambiance of the title year, Ozon follows high schooler Alexis Robin (Felix Lefebvre, a dead ringer for a teenage Brad Pitt), a death-obsessed 16-year-old whose voice-overs explore his obsession with all things mort: “Bathtubs always remind me of coffins,” being one such observation.
Alexis nearly meets his own demise on a solo sailing trip, when his borrowed boat capsizes, and 18-year-old David Gorman (Banjamin Voisin) appears on the scene like a guardian angel, sweeping the floundering Alexis into his arms—and other parts of his anatomy soon enough. More than a few shades of “Call Me By Your Name” color the story of Alexis’ sexual blossoming over a six-week period of youthful recklessness, tumult and tragedy.
To counter its morbid undercurrents—Ozon based the movie partly on a 1982 novel called Dance On My Grave, an idiom taken literally in the book and film—the director enlivens the material with slapstick levity and homoeroticism that almost borders on camp: While Alexis and David make out in the back of David’s family-owned tackle shop, David’s mother calls out to her son’s companion, “Alex, help me with the rod!”
Summer of ’85 is one of Ozon’s constructivist films, a picture evoking works from his own canon (the transgressive bildungsroman “In the House,” the gender-bending drama “The New Girlfriend”), as well as moments from Godard and Hitchcock. Elements of the film don’t add up, particularly the phony romantic notions of a dedicated teacher, judge and caseworker all hanging on every word of a text Alexis promises will exonerate him from an apparent felony, and the film gets Jewish burial rituals all wrong.
But for a film about the gnawing pain of guilt and the idea of people as vessels for our projections of what we wish them to be, Summer of ’85 is richly entertaining. Not to mention you’ll never hear Rod Stewart’s “Sailing” the same way again.