Sunday, March 21, 2021

SXSW with Abe: Best Summer Ever

I’m thrilled to be covering SXSW for the third time. This year, I’m not in Austin, but watching films virtually and reviewing them as soon as I can.

Best Summer Ever
Directed by Michael Parks Randa and Lauren Smitelli
2020 Spotlight

There has been much made in recent years about representation in media. Actors earn accolades for transforming themselves into someone with experiences they can’t relate to or haven’t personally been through, and questions are asked about why someone whose life more closely resembles a role wasn’t approached for it instead. If someone can effectively mimic the way someone else acts, why shouldn’t the opposite be true, and is the aim of a performance to deceive an audience or to elicit an emotional response? This wonderful musical makes excellence use of a diverse cast to prove that acting requires energy and passion above all else, and other projects should follow suit.

Sage (Shannon DeVido) and Tony (Rickey Wilson Jr.) meet at dance camp and fall for each other. When the summer ends, Sage gets on the road with her mothers to the next place they can set up their marijuana-growing operation. Vehicle problems and Sage’s desire to have a normal life result in them putting down temporary roots in the same small town that Tony, who told Sage that he lived in Manhattan and went to a fancy private school, happens to be the star football player. As they are unexpected and awkwardly reunited, they become the targets of a popularity-seeking cheerleader (MuMu) and a rival football player (Jacob Waltuck).

This film has what it describes as a “fully integrated cast and crew of people with and without disabilities.” Like another beloved musical, “Hamilton,” this film opts for a position of radical inclusion, one that invites any actor to play any role, regardless of any physical or societal trait that might typically impede them from being cast. It’s a marvelously successful experiment, one that discovers extraordinary talent among all of its players. They sing, they dance, and they’re clearly having a good time, which, predictably, leads to an enthralling and enjoyable experience for audiences as well.

The entire ensemble is worthy of praise, but it’s worth singling out the superb turn by DeVido, who imbues Sage with a lust for life and a discerning eye towards ridiculousness that others don’t seem to possess. The dance numbers are fun and the songs, which include sing-along lyrics on the bottom of the screen, are also strong. While this clear sendup of “Grease” and other more recent high school-set musicals isn’t always sophisticated in its plotting, it’s a remarkably entertaining time, one that captures the best of the genre and executes it with a marvelously competent cast and crew.


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