Enjoying something uniquely different is a rarefied experience for movie fans these days.
Even the most accomplished productions often feel like a mere variation on a well-trodden theme, with that which appears special and memorable only differentiated by the deftest of creative flourishes.
Though on the surface, Best Summer Ever may seem to fit neatly into the teen musical romance genre exemplified by the likes of Grease and High School Musical, the plain truth is that this movie is quite unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.
This is not just down to the unprecedented visibility of cast members with disabilities who are present in virtually every scene, but, equally, the refreshing manner in which disability is normalized by any differences never being acknowledged or discussed.
Co-directed by Michael Parks Randa and Lauren Smitelli, Best Summer Ever tells the story of the burgeoning romance between high school seniors Sage (Shannon DeVido) who happens to be a wheelchair user and Tony (Rickey Wilson, Jr.) who meet at camp and profoundly connect with a mutual outcome perfectly summarized by the film’s title.
DeVido authentically portrays Sage, as an actress, comedian, singer and writer with a disability and has previous credits on NBCUniversal’s Law & Order Special Victims Unit, Netflix’s Insatiable and Hulu’s Difficult People to her name.
The storyline begins at the tail end of that glorious summer as the couple is preparing to leave the dance and music camp and return to the rigors of their very different realities.
Sage is never able to make friends and settle in one place, as she is forced to follow the nomadic lifestyle of her marijuana farming mothers (Holly Palmer and Eileen Grubba,) as they move around the country following the harvest cycle.
Tony has a secret too. He is the local high school football team’s star kicker carrying the weight of expectation for breaking the school’s 25-year homecoming losing streak squarely on his shoulders.
Yet, his true passion is dance – something he conceals from both his football coach and guardian for fear that he will disappoint them with respect to the future they envisage for him.
A twist of fate brings Sage to Tony’s High School. However, before the star-crossed teens can build on their amorous bond nurtured at summer camp, they have to deal with the craven machinations of Head Cheerleader Beth (MuMu) who has her sights set firmly on Tony and his star quality as her ideal match for the homecoming ball.
Making Disability high-visibility
The movie’s gloriously vivid disability representation, with actors young and old with mobility, speech and other impairments popping up around every corner, was greatly facilitated by the production team’s long-standing association with Zeno Mountain Farm — a real-life camp in Vermont that hosts annual retreats for people with disabilities.
Parks Randa and Smitelli, in addition to screenwriter and Producer Andrew Pilkington, have been working on smaller projects with the camp for some time now.
However, with the backing of a heavyweight executive production ensemble including the likes of Maggie Gyllenhaal, Peter Sarsgaard, Jamie Lee Curtis and Ted Danson, the creators realized that the time was ripe to take things to a different level.
Best Summer Ever premiered last month at South By Southwest and was released earlier this week on DVD and VOD platforms.
Subverting cliched disability narratives
What this movie accomplishes superbly well is to stubbornly refuse to walk through any number of gapingly wide-open doors that appear, on the surface, to be natural and obvious narrative devices dictated by long-standing genre tropes.
Take, for example, Tony and Sage’s romance. It would have been all too easy to spin out the story of the high school football star wrestling with his virtuous heart, to see, not the physical limitations of the girl in the wheelchair, but just the beautiful soul that resides behind her disability.
Such a premise is not even hinted at in Best Summer Ever. On the contrary, the attractive Sage is confident, sassy, entirely untraumatized and comfortable in her own skin and the relationship is never on an unequal footing.
The same is true in the juxtaposition with her nemesis Beth — the cheerleader with designs on Tony. Though, unreservedly self-absorbed and devilishly conniving, Beth does not explicitly identify and seek to exploit Sage’s disability as a point of weakness.
“During the writing process, there were countless opportunities to lean into these kinds of character tropes because we knew that’s what the audience expects to happen,” says Parks Randa.
“So, this is the moment where you expect the antagonist to say something cutting to the actress with a disability but then it doesn’t happen. I think that’s more impactful.
“It makes the audience start to question why they even expect that to happen in a film. A lot of the feedback we’ve received from people who’ve seen the film is that it subverted people’s expectations of where this narrative was going to go.”
Further addressing the bold creative step to allow disability to permeate throughout the movie in such a free-flowing, incidental manner, Parks Randa adds, “We’d love for this to be a stepping stone and not just a single moment in time that fails to evolve into a movement.
“We’ll know we’ve got there if, in ten years from now, a movie like ours feels like a dime a dozen,” he says.
Believing in the world TV tells us we live in
DeVido has little doubt as to the importance of such an ambition, “Some of the reasons that form the basis of our views on who we are as people come from what we watch, what we consume,” says DeVido.
“If we change what we watch, then that mentality of how inclusive we are as a society is also going to change. Hopefully, we can all move forward together but we can’t do that without these kinds of examinations of what our society could look like.
“Perhaps, it’s going to take bigger projects than ours to make the complete change but I think we’ve created something that starts that conversation,” she says.
The bittersweet takeaway of the buzz around Best Summer Ever is that it conjures up a beautifully inclusive world.
Yes, it may be a tad idealistic but the fact it still feels so needlessly and uncomfortably distant from the world we live in today, says far less about the imagination of its creators and a lot more about the diversity in human experiences to which both Hollywood and society at large still often turns a blind eye.