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Awash with ripe, voluptuous summertime imagery and brimming with aborning adolescent female sexuality, The Summer of Sangaile is an appealingly simple, poetically conceived teen coming-of-age tale that pivots on the slow-burning romance between two girls, one with deep-rooted fears of self-assertion who nonetheless harbors an intense desire to become a stunt airplane flier. Lithuanian writer-director Alante Kavaite‘s second feature intensifies that evanescent moment between curious adolescence and full-blown erotic consciousness with a cascade of lushly sensuous visuals. She has also been fortunate to find two distinctively contrasting young actresses who convincingly portray a roller-coaster of impulses and emotions. This Sundance world dramatic competition opening night entry promises to develop a small but ardent following on the festival circuit and in specialized release.
Having made one previous feature, the mystery Ecoute le Temps (Fissures) in 2007, Kavaite here goes where countless painters, writers, dramatists and filmmakers have gone before, the pulsating season of first love, and brings it to life through an alluring combination of seductive surface beauty, convincing eroticism and an obvious but undeniably photogenic metaphor for daring to let go, in the form of the airborne acrobatics. It’s a simple, sometimes cliched tale, complete with oblivious parents and youthful self destructive tendencies, and quite European, stoking memories of cinematic trysts of long ago, of the feeling for nature in Ingmar Bergman‘s early Summer Interlude and Summer with Monika, and of the piercing sense of adolescence’s transience in Otto Preminger‘s Bonjour Tristesse.
The girl with dreams of going aloft is Sangaile (Julija Steponaityte), a tawny colt who’s thin as a rail, lopes awkwardly, at times looks like an androgynous rocker and at others resembles a younger version of Adele Exarchopoulos in Blue Is the Warmest Color. The slightly older Auste (Aiste Dirziute), who’s more down to earth and knows how to use an insinuating grin, is working an air show and, noting Sangaile’s aviation obsession, rigs a drawing for the teenager to win a spin in a plane. But Sangaile chickens out and retreats to her family’s summer house in the woods, where she and her parents are like ships that pass in the night.
After meeting the clearly interested Auste again at a canteen, Sangaile, with surprising casualness, gives herself to an amiable guy who’s part of a regular group that gathers at the lake at night. She evinces no reaction to this; it’s impossible to tell if it’s her first time or what she thought of it, although it’s the only instance so far of her interacting in any significant way with another person.
With Auste, it takes a bit longer; the older girl, who’s got a perky self-confidence, is into fashion and makes a dress for Sangaile, who seems both embarrassed and pleased with the attention. But Auste knows what she wants and, soon enough, gets it, further establishing a special intimacy by kissing and asking about the numerous self-inflicted cuts on Sangaile’s body. Although not as explicit as Blue, the sex scenes between the two teenagers are intense and credible, and the sense of breakthrough Sangaile experiences is enough to give her the nerve to finally go up in a small plane, where the pilot takes her through some loop-the-loops that are rendered by an in-cockpit camera that sharply conveys the nausea and downright terror Sangaile/Steponaityte experiences.
The girls split and make up in a rough tumble in the woods. But a moving encounter with her mother, essentially a Bergmanesque monologue in which the aging blonde tearfully testifies as to the matchless truth and beauty of her moments onstage as a ballet dancer, quietly inspires Sangaile to address her vertiginous fears and get back in the air, leading to a soft equivalent of the definitive Splendor in the Grass lost-love postscript.
Even accounting for the same gender angle, almost any first romance story rates as familiar material, but Kavaite makes a pretty heady cocktail of it. The lead actresses are both offbeat in their own ways and very appealingly so; Dirziute’s sparky Auste is good at keeping the girls’s time together lively, coming up with unusual things to do and delving deep, emotionally and psychologically, where no one has ever gone with Sangaile before; her provocations are welcome to both her partner and the viewer. As for the exotic looking Steponaityte, Kavaite would seem to have caught her on the very peach-fuzz cusp of physical maturity; as it was for Jean Seberg in Bonjour Tristesse, one year earlier or one year later would have made a subtle but pronounced difference in the way she came off onscreen. In a film where the textures, colors, luminosity and richness of surfaces are so important—all intensely magnified by Dominique Colin‘s cinematography—such details can assume decisive significance.
The soundtrack is lightly peppered mostly by soft and catchy Europop, the only factor that represents an intrusion of anything at all from the outside world into this lush cocoon of occupied by hormones, temptation, insecurity and the nerve to let go.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Dramatic Competition—opening night)
Production: Fralita Films, Les Films d’Antoine
Cast:Julija Steponaityte, Aiste Dirziute, Jurate Sodyte, Martynas
Budraitis, Lauryanas Jurgelis, Nele Savicenko, Inga Salkauskaite
Director: Alante Kavaite
Screenwriter: Alante Kavaite
Producers: Zivile Gallego, Antone Simkine
Director of photography: Dominique Colin
Production designer: Ramunas Rastauskas
Costume designer: Neringa Kersulyte
Editor: Joelle Hache
Music: JB Dunckel
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