‘Summerland’ is a Tame Coming of Age Road Movie that Gently Explores the Gay Experience in America

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Surviving graduation is just the first challenge for Bray (Chris Ball), Oliver (Rory J. Saper), and Stacey (Maddie Phillips). The trio are on a trip to make it to the Summerland music festival, despite the many obstacles. Not to be confused with the Gemma Arterton-led romantic drama also titled Summerland, which also opened this summer, this is a gentle coming of age tale.

We first meet Bray posing as a girl on a Christian online dating site. He’s fallen for Shawn (Dylan Playfair), who he believes to be in the closet. Bray and his British friend Oliver plan to drive to the Summerland festival to meet him. The only issue, he’s been pretending to be Oliver’s girlfriend Stacey, using her pictures on his profile.

Oliver’s visa is about to run out but he’s forgotten to tell his girlfriend, who believes they will move to America. Rory J. Saper is Summerland’s acting MVP, switching between nihilistic party animal and a man who knows he can’t sustain a long-distance relationship with his girlfriend. He’s that charming guy every friend group has, keeping up the party to avoid his own emotional baggage.

Of course, their RV drive to Summerland ends up a little longer than planned, stopping on various stops along the way. These detours are all pretty expected from the genre, like getting high in a field, going to a Grindr party where Bray gets told a little too much about his sexuality from a ‘magical gay wizard’ and a night of debauchery in Las Vegas. Despite all the brash nihilism, the friendship between Bray, a man struggling to find himself as a gay man in a world not entirely accepting, and Oliver, a straight party animal trying to avoid the consequences, is the main focus. There are heart-warming moments between the pair as they try to navigate what’s in their future, no judgement between the pair and how they choose to live their lives.

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Supporting cast includes Taylor (Noah Grossman), who solely appears as a queer Yoda-like figure offering advice down the phone whilst doing various types of housework, a yellow school bus full of drug-selling party goers which includes the bandana-wearing Christian (Dion Arnold) and bus driver (Onyx Shelton), and even co-director Noah Kentis makes a blue haired appearance as Count Jermaine. With all these colourful side characters passing them by, none of them really make an impact. It appears that most side-characters personality traits are drug-selling party animals. Grossman’s Taylor, who wanders around a mansion housekeeping in very small boxers, has potential but it is underused as a mystical guide to the queer experience.

It’s unnecessarily realistic in place, including an overly long scene of gas being put into an RV tank. Whilst so many teen dramas enjoy amplifying the partying experience, Summerland tames it to a point where audiences may struggle to care. But the realism of the queer experience is the best part of Summerland. It explores topics that get skirted over in the few gay coming of age films out there. Subjects like compatibility issues in gay sex, the shallowness of many men in the community and gay conversion camps are brought up in a very relatable way. These topics are handled with a gentle humour that makes it feel like you’re watching two friends talk about their lives. Sadly, such frankness between gay and straight characters is such an unusual occurrence in cinema.

The directorial debut of Lankyboy (the directing duo made up of Kurtis David Harder and Noah Kentis) Summerland is a meandering tale of worn out debauchery and discovering yourself on the road. It’s a story that has been told a hundred times over, and will be told a hundred times again. Summerland adds nothing new to the genre but does bring a soft realism to the gay coming of age tale. With mostly vacant characters that aren’t interesting enough to pay attention to, Summerland is a forgettable addition to the genre.

Summerland is available on VOD in the US from September 14th

by Amelia Harvey

Amelia is a freelance writer, frustrated novelist and occasional wrangling of international students. She is especially interested in LBGTQ culture and 1960s and 70s music. She also writes for Frame Rated, The People’s Movies and Unkempt Magazine, amongst others. Her favourite films include Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, Moulin Rouge and Closer. You can find her on Twitter @MissAmeliaNancy and letterboxd @amelianancy

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