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SXSW 2021: “Best Summer Ever” Film Review

The musical “Best Summer Ever” features the titular song just a few minutes in, but it’s not a fake-out or in media res. Despite its title, the film takes place just after summer camp ends, with most of it leading up to an important Homecoming game — but we’ll get there later.

Sage (Shannon DeVido) and Tony (Rickey Wilson, Jr.) are the romantic leads who have to say goodbye before they part ways after a summer together at Lake View Dance Camp in Vermont. Tony is supposed to be going back to New York City, and Sage is headed who-knows-where with her moms.

But we quickly find out that Tony doesn’t live in the Big Apple; he lives in a cabin in the fictional Mt. Abraham, Pennsylvania, with his older brother Kevin (Ajani “AJ” Murray) and Coach (Bradford Haynes), a close family friend and Tony’s football coach. Sage’s family has some car trouble on their way to Nashville, so they end up staying in a rental in Mt. Abraham, which means it’s only a matter of time before she realizes that Tony wasn’t being honest with her. And we learn that he wasn’t honest with Coach about where he went for the summer either.

As if that weren’t enough conflict, there’s also a 25-year curse on the school’s football program, which most of the town thinks only Tony (who is their star kicker) can fix. Plus, cheerleading captain Beth (MuMu) is determined to have Tony take her to the Homecoming dance — at any cost.

“Best Summer Ever” features eight original songs in its 80-minute run time, and while they’re not really earworms, they do add to the film. In most cases, they just create the sense of whimsy that you often get with musicals, but there are also the requisite songs in which we get a sense of emotion and character development. One set piece in particular stands out as a sort of homage to “Footloose,” where Tony is singing a song called “Ready to Ride” and does some dancing in a barn; it’s how you know he’s ready to chase his own dreams.

The performances in the film were mostly good, with only a couple of uneven actors. The ones that stood out to me as the best are DeVido, MuMu and Emily Kranking (who played a less-prominent character named Nancy). DeVido’s vocals and emotional vulnerability made her a great choice for the film’s lead, and MuMu was perfect (and very funny) as the stereotypically villainous head cheerleader, especially when she’s blackmailing Tony and sings “Hold me closer Tony dancer”. Kranking is unforgettable as a joyful addition to any scene she was a part of.

Something that strikes me about this movie is the plethora of A-listers who were involved in its making. Benjamin Bratt makes a cameo with his real-life daughter, Sofia, and there are a number of recognizable names on the list of executive producers: Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen; Amy Brenneman; Jamie Lee Curtis; and Maggie Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard (the last two also make a fun cameo).

While “Best Summer Ever” is a predictable and earnest musical set in a high school, it can’t be overstated how revolutionary it is for its casting. Directors Michael Parks Randa and Lauren Smitelli included a lot of actors with disabilities in this movie, as well as some diversity in body type, race and ethnicity. It’s unlikely you’ve seen a feature film that presents a world in which characters have disabilities that are never commented on; the world they live in is one that is accessible and accepting of people for who they are. I believe that lovely worldview is the film’s greatest strength. I didn’t quite love it the way that I wanted to going into it, but I do think it has a lot to offer its viewers, without a hint of preachiness or pessimism.

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