‘Summer of 8’: Newport Beach Review

Courtesy of Trustfall Films
The emotional hard sell undercuts the tender mood.

A debut feature follows the daylong gathering of a group of SoCal teens on the eve of their departure for college.

The octet of friends in Summer of 8 — four boys and four girls — are a privileged, self-possessed and handsome bunch of Southern Californians, about to head their separate ways for college. With an appreciation for the bittersweetness of summer’s last rays, first-time director Ryan Schwartz celebrates their youth, beauty and mixed emotions over a daylong gathering at the beach. His screenplay strikes universal chords, but with his preference for constant commentary over dramatic action, Schwartz doesn’t quite translate those feelings into involving cinema. Mainly he oversells them. 

Premiering at Newport Beach, where the feature was largely shot, Summer of 8 will resonate most with teen and young adult viewers who find something fresh in its insights. 

Playing younger, the cast of twentysomethings deliver effective moments and a credible group chemistry, and it’s clear that they could have done more with less on-the-nose material. The low-key ringmaster for the valedictory get-together is Jesse (Carter Jenkins), who invites his friends to their favorite strip of coast, near the house he shares with his young widowed mother (Sonya Walger). The pic opens with Jesse’s voiceover, addressing the father he mourns and setting the tone of earnest searching that characterizes much of the dialogue (“Who am I? … What does it all mean?”).

Jesse is determined to create a perfect last day together for his circle of friends, most of whom are facing not just fear and excitement over what lies ahead, but relationship angst of one form or another. For Jesse, the burning question is whether he and his girlfriend, Lily (Shelley Hennig), should continue their romantic connection long-distance or make a clean break. Indicative of how well adjusted these kids are, the couple end up calmly discussing the pros and cons of breaking up.

Michael Grant is especially affecting as the sensitive Aiden, who’s determined to finally express his feelings for the Boulder-bound Serena (Bailey Noble). Their walk along the beach is the strongest scene in the film, alive with flirtatious uncertainty (well captured, along with the Pacific sunshine, by cinematographer Martim Vian). At the other end of the sensitivity spectrum, Matthew Shively offers the film’s most surprising portrayal as Oscar, the group’s token uncouth jerk (or “disgusting f—ing pig,” as another buddy sort of fondly calls him). He persuasively reveals Oscar’s essential likability, and the redemption arc is utterly unforced. 

Rounding out the ensemble are Nick Marini as Jesse’s broody best friend, Bobby; Rachel DiPillo’s “most likely to succeed” Emily, who regrets her sexual inexperience; and Natalie Hall as independent, love-’em-and-leave-’em Jen. 

Amid the sun and sand of Little Corona del Mar Beach and the candlelight of Jesse’s backyard, the friends share joints, beers, pizza and confessions of varying consequence. Bobby’s anxiety over his impending separation from Jesse suggests significant unresolved emotions. Though his feelings are never addressed directly, like most everything else in the film they’re spelled out through words and behavior without generating true tension. 

Some nicely handled off-target exchanges are the exception here; most of the dialogue expresses a self-conscious sense of ceremony about endings and beginnings, and a number of scenes push on well after their points are made. Rather than letting the audience discover the poignancy of this summer day, the movie keeps telling us how important each moment is.

Production companies: Trustfall Films presents an Organically Grown production in association with Provenance Pictures
Cast: Carter Jenkins, Shelley Hennig, Matthew Shively, Natalie Hall, Michael Grant, Bailey Noble, Nick Marini, Rachel DiPillo, Sonya Walger
Director-screenwriter: Ryan Schwartz
Producers: Michael M. McGuire, Steven J. Berger
Executive producers: Scott Dixon, Kevin Goetz, Michael Goetz
Director of photography: Martim Vian
Production designers: Matthew Heller, Hannah Stoddard
Costume designer: Sheila Hume
Editors: Aaron Brock, Zack Stoff
Composer: Tobias Norberg
Casting: Lauren Bass, Jordan Bass

Not rated, 88 minutes

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