The road-trip movie genre has a cinematic history that is as long as wide as, well, the road itself. Adventure, and most importantly, self-discovery; good times, bad times; tests of character and strength; all happen when the unknown is stretched ahead on the horizon. The point of a journey, after all, is not to arrive. And once that destination is hit? Many times that terminus point disappoints with its fabled treasure chest of answers now empty with knowledge already gleaned. The coming-of-age comedy, Summerland, is void of any keen wisdom but it exemplifies the power of friendship.
Firmly set in the here-and-now, Summerland voyages into the classic quest to vanquish the stigma of virginity. This time around a key revision is made. Bray, one of the story’s key travelers, is gay and open-heartedly seeking the man of his dreams. Or at least fantasies. And it works. Bray does not represent an agenda or a criteria. If anything, he represents the honesty in us all and the desire to find true love.
Where this movie could have been something raunchy (Road Trip) or soggy (Euro Trip), Summerland, with all of its modern-day pride, instead becomes something endearing. Summerland hits that late Millennial stride nearly nosing into nostalgia while giving the Gen Z kids hints and whispers that life is both crude and positive. And the drive to get there is worthwhile.
During one of the movie’s many detours, Oliver, ever the instigator, screams out, “Now tell me that wasn’t fun?!” He is making a declaration of the film itself. Beating on his chest as if proof is needed. To answer, Summerland, like life itself, has its moments.
Directorial credits go to Lankyboy, a directing duo made up of Kurtis David Harder and Noah Kentis. And they do a good job as Summerland looks beautiful.
Harder and Kentis wield a digital camera proficiently when it comes to the grand vistas of the road. They apparently can conjure some of that indie film magic, yet they keep such skills at a minimum. Flashy when glitter is required. Groovy during the requisite montages. Stationary when dialogue comes to the forefront. Spaces of silence for introspection. Nothing overly daring presents itself in either concept or technicality. Everything is safe.
At one point, Oliver and Bray witness an unusual convenience store robbery that could have been played for deep laughs or entrenched with the seriousness of dread. Instead, it is mostly forgotten, as are many of the movie’s scenes – safe, compact, and vague when seen from a distance.
Ironically, the movie looks sharp. Oliver, Stacey, and Bray are blemish free and outfitted accordingly. Lankyboy succeeds in putting together a complete Instagram-worthy package.
Summerland tells the story of three friends who embark on a road trip to the self-titled music festival. They are rich, bored, and young. Oliver (Rory J. Saper) is an Englishman in the Pacific Northwest. He’s all attitude and id, complete with an Ewan Macgregor smile. Summerland might be his idea but GF Stacey (Maddie Phillips) is the one who actually wants to go for the music. BFF Bray (Chris Ball) is going strictly to meet Shawn. The kicker being that Shawn is (presumably) straight and, because movies everyone, thinks Bray is really Stacey through the wonders of social media anonymity. Hilarity ensues.
If Summerland was an 80s teen flick, Oliver and Bray’s plan would be to lose their virginity at a wild SoCal bacchanalia, complete with biker gangs and cheerleaders and Sean Penn, only to eventually find true love with their exact female counterparts. Making Bray adamantly – but not militaristically – gay modernizes, and sensitizes, this otherwise tired ploy. Of the trio, Bray may be the third wheel but more importantly he is the voice of reason and possesses true emotion.
Stacey hints at strife within her family through whispers and rumors and the convenience of text messages. Yet the threat of family repercussions results in the eventual split of the trinity and the overall engagement of the narrative as Bray and Oliver soldier forward, script be damned.
There are no grand revelations with any of the characters. The festival is an impotent catharsis proving again that the road is the only essential character within the genre. Yet the main principals are real and true to themselves.
Outside of the three, the supporting cast are devolved clichés solely intended for modest laughs: the affable drug dealer with a body contradicting his trade; the annoying neat-freak roomie; the musician plying words of wisdom by way of banal pop-song lyrics.
In movies, the meaningful ones, truth and wisdom must be revealed before accepted. In the Breakfast Club, Allison divulges that her family ignores her. Andrew comes to terms that it is not homesickness that leaves him hollow in Garden State. And in Clerks? Dante realizes his tragedy is his own complacency. Summerland plays with realism, however, that road’s appeal is limited within the magic of movie-making. Without a message to convey, the narrative is nothing more than the rambling of friends with cues to inside jokes and external monotony. Summerland wants to tell a tale of exploration but never ventures off the Interstate.
If there is any message to be conveyed to a young crowd, or those wishing to recapture such youth, it is that you have to love yourself before you can love others. And that is a good message. Like much of the movie, it is also a safe message. Love, like life, can get awfully messy. To go back to that road analogy, Summerland takes a long time to arrive at such understanding.
Harder and Kentis take the time to grandize the wonder of the road yet never fully captures the beauty of the travelers. Summerland lacks the satisfaction of a quest coming to its finale. The beautiful photo finish forever dulled with a common Snapchat filter.