Last Summer: Outfest Review

Mood piece about two teen lovers achieves lyrical highs despite a wafer-thin story.

The Arkansas-set teen love story done in a Terrence Malick style is one of the more ambitious offerings at this year's Outfest.

The last summer before kids head off to college has provided rich subject matter for many earlier films, most notably American Graffiti, which was released 40 years ago. An ultra-low-budget, gay variation on this theme is presented in one of this year’s Outfest offerings, Last Summer. While the film is conceived more as a mood piece or a tone poem than as a conventional narrative, it achieves some lovely moments and even some pointed truths about the lure and limitations of small-town life. Don’t expect a theatrical release for the slow-moving picture, but it will be interesting to follow the career of director Mark Thiedeman.

The Outfest catalogue compares Thiedeman to Terrence Malick, and it would not be inappropriate to see Last Summer as a minimalist counterpart to The Tree of Life or To the Wonder. The movie’s entire plot can be summed up in a sentence: After several years together, two teenage boys are contemplating the end of their romance. Jonah (Sean Rose) is heading off to college. Luke (Samuel Pettit), an athlete and mediocre student, is trying to imagine what his life will be like when Jonah leaves. The story is simply the pretext for a series of tableaux of rural Arkansas. Some of the images of nature have a Malick-like luminosity, but just as impressive as the landscapes are the evocations of the working-class homes where much of the story unfolds.

There’s very little dialogue between the boys. An early scene with Luke and his teacher explains the boys’ dilemma in fairly prosaic terms. Clearly Thiedeman has little interest in such expository scenes. He is more determined to render the sensual texture of the boys’ everyday lives. The imagery crystallizes the theme of the film, which is the challenge of deciding whether to stay in your hometown cocoon or venture out to a larger world. The film doesn’t stack the deck. As one of the characters says, some people feel so comfortable in one place that they can’t imagine leaving, and others feel trapped in the exact same environment.

Surprisingly, the boys’ homosexuality doesn’t seem to create any problems for them. As far as we can tell, their community tolerates their relationship, almost in the way that Native American communities found a respected place for their gay shamans. But Luke understands that the horizons are too limited for Jonah, and he knows that the idyllic romance they’ve enjoyed cannot last. No doubt there are many straight high school sweethearts who face this same dilemma, when one of them seems destined for a larger world than their hometown can contain. The best thing about the film is that it encourages viewers to contemplate these larger issues, though many will feel that the lethargic pacing allows way too much time for such contemplation.

Pettit’s performance is a lot more vibrant than Rose’s, so the film seems slightly unbalanced. But the other town residents, most of them played by nonprofessionals, always seem believable. The musical selections from Beethoven and Schumann, while undoubtedly pretentious, do serve the director’s vision. Even though Thiedeman stubbornly refuses to provide any narrative pleasures, he has undeniable visual gifts and a flair for lyrical filmmaking that mark him as a director worth watching.

Cast: Samuel Pettit, Sean Rose, Roben Sullivant, Byron Taylor, Deb Lewis

Director-screenwriter-editor: Mark Thiedeman

Producers: Elizabeth Strandberg, Mark Thiedeman

Director of photography:  David Goodman

No rating, 73 minutes