SXSW Online 2021 Review: “Best Summer Ever”

Year: 2020
Runtime: 72 minutes
Directors: Michael Parks Randa, Lauren Smitelli
Writers: Michael Parks Randa, Lauren Smitelli, Will Halby, Terra Mackintosh, Andrew Pilkington           
Stars: Shannon DeVido, Rickey Wilson Jr., MuMu, Bradford Haynes, Emily Kranking, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Benjamin Bratt

By Valerie Kalfrin

The teen musical “Best Summer Ever” has a plot we’ve seen before — and the film, to its credit, knows that and winks at it. Yet it exists in a world where waitstaff, cops, sportscasters, camp counselors, teammates, and cheerleaders have disabilities alongside people who don’t.

No one gawks or wonders aloud about what they can and can’t do. Any conflict stems from universal angst such as the high-school pecking order and parental expectations. It’s such an inclusive, adaptive, accepting place that viewers might forgive any narrative shortcomings because it’s so infectiously joyous.

Available via VOD on April 27, “Best Summer Ever” debuted at SXSW Online 2021 after COVID-19 postponed its showing at SXSW 2020. The film opens with Sage (Shannon DeVido, Hulu’s “Difficult People”), who uses a wheelchair and plays the keyboard, saying goodbye to Tony (Rickey Wilson Jr., TV’s “This Is Us”), a dancer. The two fell in love over the summer at a dance camp in Vermont and promise to keep in touch.

Rickey Wilson Jr. (left) and Shannon DeVido play sweethearts Tony and Sage in “Best Summer Ever” / Courtesy of IMDB.com

Tony told Sage that he’s from New York City, but he soon arrives in his real hometown of Mt. Abe, a quiet burg where he’s the star kicker on the high school football team. He’s also the town’s hope of breaking a twenty-five-year losing streak. The team is so bad that the coach (Bradford Haynes, “Blackbear”) plans for field goals, urging Cody (Jacob Waltuck), the hapless quarterback, not to pass the ball.

Coach also is a father figure to Tony, having cared for him and his brother, Kevin (Ajani A.J. Murray), since their parents’ deaths. Tony thought the dance crowd wouldn’t accept a football player, but with everyone at home focused on football, he can’t bear to share that he loves choreography, too.

Meanwhile, Sage grew up on the move, thanks to her weed-growing moms (Holly Palmer, TV’s “Bad Girls,” and Eileen Grubba, TV’s “Watchmen”) staying ahead of the law. Sage yearns to set down roots, dryly noting that not every customer is a cancer patient in need of relief.

Rickey Wilson Jr. (center) plays Tony, a star football player with dancing dreams in “Best Summer Ever” / Courtesy of IMDB.com

When the ancient truck hauling their Airstream breaks down in Mt. Abe, Sage suggests they rent a cabin there so she can see what it’s like to attend high school. Soon, she and Tony meet again, and his summer secret comes to light.

“Best Summer Ever” hits a lot of familiar beats, but it also pokes fun at its familiarity with references to “Footloose” and “Grease.” (“Tell me more, tell me more,” someone sings as Sage and Tony recount their summer romance.) Hearing about dance camp, Cody teams up with Beth (MuMu, a.k.a. Madeline Rhodes), a cheerleader desperate to be homecoming queen. The two think that exposing Tony’s dancing feet is their ticket to the spotlight.

Rhodes, a Broadway veteran, enjoys vamping around as the villain, and she and DeVido have great vocals and lovely tone. Rhodes also does double duty, co-writing the cute, catchy songs with executive producer Peter Halby. Tony sings how Sage “floated through the room,” Sage’s moms encourage her to “roll, roll, roll your own path,” and bored teens warble, “High school again …. Time to sleep in class and hate my friends.”

Madeline Rhodes, a.k.a. MuMu, does double duty in “Best Summer Ever,” vamping around as the antagonist and co-writing the songs / Courtesy of IMDB.com

DeVido and Wilson are an endearing couple, and the script by directors Michael Parks Randa and Lauren Smitelli, along with Will Halby, Terra Mackintosh, and Andrew Pilkington doesn’t throw them any obstacles that they can’t overcome. That might not be realistic, but it’s hard to resist, especially if you have a disability or love someone who does.

Executive producer Maggie Gyllenhaal, Robert DeNiro, Benjamin Bratt and his daughter, Sophia Bratt, appear in brief roles, with Gyllenhaal especially funny as a TV reporter obsessed with the football team’s record. Naturally, everything comes to a song-and-dance finale at homecoming, where Randa and Smitelli turn the camera on the inclusive crew.

“Best Summer Ever” might not reinvent the wheel in terms of storytelling, but by centering characters often ignored onscreen, it’s an exhilarating delight.

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