Summer '03 (United States, 2018)

September 27, 2018
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Summer '03 Poster

Summer ’03 is a coming-of-age story characterized by comedy-infused drama and a decidedly female point-of-view. The time period can be deduced from the title but, excepting the way cars and cellphones look, things weren’t that different 15 years ago from what they are today. Writer/director Becca Gleason has admitted that parts of the movie are autobiographical while others are inventions. It’s not difficult to make an educated guess which is which – some parts of Summer ’03 glow with striking depth and verisimilitude while others feel far-fetched and jarring. There’s a sense that, in trying to add humor and cinema-friendly “touches” to her narrative, Gleason occasionally takes us too far from reality and, during those times, the movies loses its focus on the 16-year old protagonist, Jamie Winkle (Joey King).

Make no mistake – Jamie is the reason to see Summer ’03.  This is in part because of the intimacy with which Gleason writes the perceptive character and partly because of Joey King’s relatable performance. When the movie concentrates on Jamie and how this pivotal summer made fundamental changes to her personality, Gleason is on solid footing. When it branches out to half-tell the stories of other poorly-formed characters, it slips and slides. There’s too much of the latter and it hurts the film’s ebb and flow.

The movie opens with a death. Jamie’s octogenarian grandmother, Dotty (June Squibb), shuffles off her mortal coil but, before doing so, she divulges information to each of her children and grandchildren that they might be better off not knowing. She tells Jamie’s mother, Shira (Andrea Savage), that she never liked her. To Jamie’s dad, Ned (Paul Scheer), she offers the knowledge that the man he called “father” wasn’t his biological sire. And she has one bit of advice for her sole granddaughter: learn how to give a proper blowjob. Armed with that critical knowledge, Jamie is ready to face the teenage world of raging hormones and confused sexual mores.

Dotty’s death shakes up Jamie’s family. Her father disappears on a trip to Germany to locate his real dad, leaving her mother with the dubious honor of preparing the old woman’s funeral. Jamie consults her experienced friend Emily (Kelly Lamor Wilson) about the finer points of oral sex. She ends up with two prime candidates for her first experience: her best buddy March (Stephen Ruffin), who has a crush on her but is firmly within the “friend zone,” and the hot priest-to-be Luke (Jack Kilmer) who isn’t opposed to some experimentation before he becomes celibate.

Most of the material dealing with Jamie’s feelings and adolescent angst have the ring of truth and the opening monologue about how children perceive summer will stir memories. There’s a universality about these things that touches everyone – male and female – because the pressures of being a teenager and approaching one’s sexual initiation aren’t segregated to one gender or the other. However, since the vast majority of coming-of-age stories are written and directed by men (even when the main character is female), this offers a valuable perspective. Comparisons to Ladybird are warranted, although the films have divergent tones. Greta Gerwig’s film was more precise in its focus and there wasn’t as much extraneous filler but both movies offer a degree of insight not always available in the John Hughes-inspired pictures that dominate the genre. Summer ’03 is a solid feature debut whose missteps are forgivable because of the strength and intelligence of the main character.

Summer '03 (United States, 2018)

Director: Becca Gleason
Cast: Joey King, Jack Kilmer, Andrea Savage, Erin Drake, Paul Scheer, June Squibb, Stephen Ruffin, Kelly Lamor Wilson
Screenplay: Becca Gleason
Cinematography: Ben Hardwicke
Music: Nathan Matthew David
U.S. Distributor: Blue Fox Entertainment
Run Time: 1:36
U.S. Release Date: 2018-09-28
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Content)
Genre: Comedy/Drama
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1