Fresh, decisive and witty, Summer ‘03 is a blast in the proverbial past. Orlando Bloom posters frame bedroom walls while Nokia flip phones reign supreme as a staple accessory in this recreation of a time predating the birth of the smartphone. What isn’t old, however, is the delectable charm of a film revolving around a bubbly teenage girl’s take on life following death.
If Summer ‘03 were a boat ride, Director Becca Gleason would sit at its helm as accomplished captain. Gleason produces something special with her feature debut, down to the early ‘00s adolescent memories it invokes. Light and entirely unexpected for a movie that’s packaged like just another teen, coming of age rom-com, Gleason’s screenplay is moving throughout.
But say this feature was a sea-faring trip: then lead actress Joey King would be the mainsail, masthead, and hull. Without King, Summer ‘03 just wouldn’t work – and for good reason.
King is making waves in the press these days, what with the surefire success of her Netflix original The Kissing Booth that premiered exclusively on the streaming service this summer. She was stellar in that flick, but Summer ‘03 is the role the budding actress really finds solid footing in. Awkwardly charming, confident but insecure, and innocent but wise, King plays the hell out of titular character, Jamie.
“Be good in the sack…misadventures of sexual awakening and getting to know her authentic self.”
No shocker here thanks to that name, but the movie takes place 15 years ago in the summer of 2003. It starts with Jaime’s grandmother kicking off a chain of events that sets the tone of tomfoolery to the affair. Here’s what is surprising: on her deathbed grandmother gives Jamie a message she says the young girl needs to know about life. Along the lines of “be good in the sack,” the whispered encouragements of an elderly family member urge the 16-year-old girl forward into misadventures of sexual awakening and getting to know her authentic self.
It only gets more borderline cheesy but entertaining from there. Sure, there are bucketloads of cliches in this production, but they are deftly dropped in. Done so in an obviously calculated manner that nods to Gleason’s tact when it comes to reinventing a classic teen flick. A nostalgic, youthful breath of fresh air is exactly what this is, and Summer ‘03 doesn’t do that frustrating thing that so many movies do; which is trying to be something it’s not.
King’s expressive take on Jaime reads as if the role was created with her in mind. Her performance is further elevated by her chemistry with the cast around her. Jaime’s force-of-nature mom Shira is played spectacularly by the ultra-talented Andrea Savage (you may know her from I’m Sorry and Step Brothers), while Paul Scheer smoothly tackles Ned, her dad, and June Squibb makes a grand appearance as the grandmother who stirs shit up.
It’s not often to come across this conclusion in a film critique, but Summer ‘03 has one of those cast’s that warrants almost everyone to be singled out for a standing ovation. Among these high-brow performances are Luke Kilmer’s brooding, playboy take on priest-in-training Luke, Stephen Ruffin as Jaime’s genuine love interest March, and Logan Medina’s precious embodiment of Dylan, a beloved member of the extended family.
“…only gets more borderline cheesy but entertaining from there.”
Talent is not just limited to the actors, either. Gleason’s script is taken from ideation to full-fledged movie in a way that suggests nothing we see on-screen is an accident. Best of all, she frames it all so stunningly. Shots melt together like the mouthwatering ice cream sundaes of summertime.
Much like a melody, there’s a uniform pattern to cinematographer Ben Hardwicke’s work, that drops in to introduce a meaningful voiceover every so often in the storyline. Inventive variations on the glittering majesty of being underwater threads throughout frames of sunlight, family, and youth. A camera submerges for routine ventures under the surface to capture the blue luminescence of both pool and lake backdrops.
Running deeper than just a jaw-dropping view, the focus on water doubles as a focus on control. Or rather, learning to let go of it. In Jaime’s case, the subtle heart of the movie suggests such a theme. That control is something she fights to keep, only to realize she never had it at all. Just like her grandmother sought it out in her last minutes of life, but in turn, opened one too many Pandora’s boxes that first led to chaos but eventually brought peace.
But what Summer ‘03 teaches its audience is that control is an illusion. Tying into the realism of the production is another lesson: not every interaction or human connection has to have a fairytale ending. In fact, most don’t. Like the comedy’s lead character, Jaime says, “It was the summer I fucked up.” And who can’t relate to that?
Summer ‘03 (2018) Written and Directed by Becca Gleason. Starring Joey King, Andrea Savage, Paul Scheer, Erin Darke, June Squibb.
8.5 out of 10 stars