SXSW Review: Summer ’03


Apparently, coming of age tales aren’t going away. Go figure. Yes, the quintessential period of life that we all go through still holds powerful sway over our imaginations and, more importantly, our memories. We’ve been there done that, but probably still dwell on it from time to time and are always curious to learn about someone else’s own shortcomings (or triumphs) going through it.

But if you’ve seen one coming of age high school tale, have you seen them all? Summer ’03 attempts to circumvent this question by setting up its action with a dying grandmother spilling secrets and, let’s say, unusual advice to her family before the end. But in spite of the clever framing, and granny’s blowjob secret to life, Summer ’03 isn’t as unique as it sets out to be.

Summer ’03
Directors: Becca Gleason
Rated: NR
Release Date: March 10, 2018

Joey King, who stars as high school senior and unwilling advice recipient Jamie, is incredibly talented. That much is obvious from early on and only reinforced as Summer ’03 unfolds. Similarly, several of her young co-stars like Stephen Ruffin and Jack Kilmer also offer standout performances. The acting talent is not what hampers this film. Sure, Paul Scheer seems a bit out of place as he can’t appear as anything other than inept plastic surgeon Andre from FX’s The League with any level of seriousness (not yet anyway), but that’s OK.

It’s a writing problem. I hesitate to say the writing’s not original enough, because writer/director Becca Gleason clearly tries to offer some twists on the standard tale to make Summer ’03 its own train car (perhaps the bar car?) in the long train of high school coming of age films. Yet, many of the scenes, when stripped of the twist setups (Grandma telling Jamie to learn to give good head; Jaime falling for a young priest in training; etc.), are far too reminiscent of scenes straight out of similar movies, scenes done not better, but at least as well. Think Juno, or even Superbad.

Unfortunately, as I watched, I found myself not buying Jaime as an individual. There’s either too little growth on a long enough timeline, or too much in the short run. Her character’s inconsistent in a way that goes beyond the inconsistencies found in high school age kids. Obviously, this is further example of the inconsistency in the writing.

Call me pompous or say I’m splitting hairs, but if we examine another bit of the plot I think it’s even more obvious. Another revelation that Bad Grandma lets loose before her passing is that Jaime’s dad’s father is not the man he always thought it to be. Granny had an affair and there’s another, realer dad out there somewhere. Ned, Jaime’s father, suddenly drops everything and essentially leaves his family without a word to find his real father. Perhaps this is reasonable, until he turns up towards the film’s conclusion with real father in tow and said real father is a blatant anti-Semitic, and Jaime’s mom Shira (Andrea Savage) is Jewish.

How does this all play out? Basically like a big joke, lacking any of the real seriousness that this situation would actually be fraught with. And I get it, in a quasi-comedy consequences are never what they are in the real world, but haven’t we moved past anti-Semitic elders as a punchline? If not, can’t we? Maybe not, until it’s less a reality in the world, but I for one wasn’t laughing.

None of this is to underserve what’s not a bad film. It has moments that are relatable, and again, a talented cast displaying some fine acting chops, and there’s a nice conclusion with a golf cart chase that makes no sense but is somehow oddly satisfying to my own inner-teen. I expect to see more from Gleason who will no doubt have more stories to tell and I expect will grow in doing so. Also, look for King to shine somewhere—there’s no way she won’t find more roles to don with this sort of exuberance and natural, latent acting ability within.