Summer Night is tepid and flat, and sorely lacks a trigger or device to help move the film’s story along.
There hasn’t been much that Hollywood hasn’t covered since the strategic placement of the FBI warning memo. Besides the emergence down the timeline of popular genres like westerns, mafia crime dramas, and comic book features, I can’t think of another genre the City of Angels loves more than a coming of age movie or comedy that has a bunch of teenagers or twenty-somethings figuring things out for themselves. When done properly, like Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused, you reach a classic film status with a great sense of time and place that defines a generation. When done poorly, you get a mad dash for cash derivative works like More American Graffiti; Summer Night falls somewhere in the middle of a very large pack of films that have already been made.
Actor Joseph Cross’s (Big Little Lies, Running with Scissors) directorial debut has a collection of various character types we have seen countless times before. You have Jameson (Boyhood‘s Ellar Coltrane) who seems to have a charm left off-screen for someone who is being fawned over by two women (Victoria Justice and Elena Kampouris). His friend Rabbitt (Dunkirk’s Bill Milner) is no longer a plus one as Lexi (All the Boys I Loved Before’s Lana Condor) slept with a guy she met at a wedding. Meanwhile, Seth (Ian Nelson) has knocked up his own plus one (Crazy, Stupid, Love‘s Analeigh Tipton), that equals a plus two coming soon. Musician Taylor (The Stanford Prison Experiment’s Callan McAuliffe) is prepping to play at the local bar called The Alamo, so he invites Dana (Ella Hunt) to come to see him play, but Vanessa (Melina Vidler) has him set in her sights.
I wouldn’t call Summer Night hopelessly derivative as many have been touting (not that this film has been taking social media or the film world by storm). The script from Jordan Jolliff takes on the subject of aimless millennials as we watch late teens and twenty-somethings going out for of an over-relaxed warm night; which is precisely the problem. Despite the description above, there should be plenty of fodder to let some tensions boil above the surface. Yet, there has been very little conflict, no real edge, and everyone supports each other in an almost positive manner. While that choice is interesting in its own way, it never rises above Joliff’s thin narrative and cardboard cutout characters, despite its likable cast. It also offers another insight from the male perspective, when a more interesting choice could have been from the group’s women, who are all struggling with their own lives and identities, but are only explored on the surface at best.
Cross though does show a keen eye for movement, using light, and shadows, particularly in transition during the performance scenes; there is talent there. Anna and the Apocalypse’s Ella Hunt and Callan McAuliffe are shining bright spots here as the shy Dana and her date with Taylor is sweet and even refreshing. Unfortunately, the booby prize goes to Coltrane, who often makes any thoughtful explanation feel forced, which is apparent when put up against several scenes with a potential love interested with Justice’s Harmony, a natural here. The only character that has any real breakout potential is Justin Chatwin’s Andy, an actor that has always had the potential to be a star, but his character, while charismatic, seems to be there just to say or do various off the wall things without any motivation that’s often pointless (take for example a slow-motion scene of him pitching a lemon to Rabbitt, who swings at it with a butcher knife the size of a tennis racket).
Summer Night has a small-town feel that is evident and reminded me of villages or hamlets I remembered far too well in rural Pennsylvania (Bradford specifically), where residents of all age groups would gather at local taverns that are operated out of converted houses. It never mattered if you were of age or not, any would gather, drink the same cold beverage, and cards were never checked. I often admired the setting and world Cross created that had me wanting to like his film more than I could honestly recommend. Unfortunately, the script plays it too tepid and safe, offering little in terms of excitement when any evident inner turmoil that the characters are struggling with have obvious answers and leaves us without any interest or suspense to be had. Cross’s film plays like a documentary, with countless dragged out filmed scenes of songs being played by the characters, that’s about a directionless group of young men and women without a trigger or device to move the film’s story along.
M.N. Miller has been a film and television writer for Ready Steady Cut since August of 2018 and is patiently waiting for the next Pearl Jam album to come out.