‘Last Summer’: Rome Review

Courtesy of Bolero Film
A potentially gripping story gets lost at sea

"Pacific Rim" star Rinko Kikuchi headlines this debut drama from Leonardo Guerra Seragnoli

The setting is breathtaking and the setup definitely enticing, but once writer-director Leonardo Guerra Seragnoli’s seaside drama, Last Summer, tries to set sail, it remains more or less anchored at shore.

This is actually what happens to the luxurious yacht where a Japanese mother, played by Pacific Rim and Babel star Rinko Kikuchi, is obliged to spend a few final days with her 4-year-old son, who’s been whisked away in a custody battle, though we never know why. The fact that the film’s entire plot is based on unexplained past events is just one of several factors making this English-language, Italian-made feature a mostly ineffective affair, with an emotional undercurrent that never pulls the viewer in no matter how hard it tries. Beautifully shot with a beautiful looking cast, the Rome Film Festival premiere could see some fest bookings after its hometown release late October, after which it will coast calmly into VOD.

A craftily staged opening sequence reveals a slick modern schooner moored off the coast of Italy, and upon which a captain, Alex (Yorick Van Wageningen), and his beautiful mates Rebecca (Lucy Griffiths) and Eva (Laura Sofia Bach) seem to be having lots of fun in the sun. Soon after, the mysterious Naomi (Kikuchi) shows up, and we realize that the other characters are really deckhands at the service of Naomi’s powerful ex-husband, who’s granted her four days aboard with her child before the custody settlement kicks in.

A few hours later, Naomi’s little boy, Ken (spooky cute newcomer Ken Brady) arrives, and as the tension begins to mount between a grieving mother, an unloving child and a highly suspicious crew, Last Summer looks like it could have all the makings of a cross-cultural update of Knife in the Water or Dead Calm. But the screenplay – which Seragnoli wrote in collaboration with bestselling Japanese author Banana Yoshimoto – provides plenty of calm but nothing that gets even close to dead (unless you call a jellyfish sting deadly), while instead of throwing a knife in the water, a soccer ball is tossed in, during one scene that doesn’t go anywhere special.

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Seragnoli has directed a few well-received shorts (one which starred Jena Malone), and he showcases a certain eye for beauty here, with DP Gianfilippo Corticelli (Third Person) capturing the vivid seascapes in crisply lit widescreen compositions. But he doesn’t seem to know much about human behavior or decent plot construction: Why, for instance, does Naomi only speak to Ken in her native tongue halfway through the movie, whereas that seems to be their best form of communication? And why is every narrative detail revealed through an overhead conversation, as if the characters spent all their off-camera time trading script notes out loud?

Kikuchi does her best with the underworked material, playing a woman damaged by earlier actions that are frustratingly kept in the dark, and who often seems on the verge of doing something stupid or dangerous – at least for the first half of the film. Van Waveningen (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) is also decent as a skipper whose sunburnt facade masks a warmer man beneath, while the little Brady is good as a spoiled brat who gradually becomes more likeable, if still in need of a decent spanking.

Yet as mother and son predictably drift together during the final act, Last Summer starts to drift more and more in circles, never building up to the dramatic catharsis that’s meant to replace the waning suspense. It’s as if the filmmakers started out making a tightknit thriller and then decided to change course at the midpoint, hoping to steer into something deeper but winding up in shallow waters.

Venue: Rome Film Festival (Prospettive Italia)
Production companies: Cinemaundici, Jean Vigo Italia, Essentia, Rai Cinema
Cast: Rinko Kikuchi, Yorick Van Wageningen, Lucy Griffiths, Laura Sofia Bach, Daniel Ball, Ken Brady
Director: Leonardo Guerra Seragnoli
Screenwriters: Leonardo Guerra Seragnoli, Igort, with the contribution of Banana Yoshimoto
Producers: Elda Ferri, Luigi Musini
Director of photography: Gianfilippo Corticelli
Production designer: Milena Canonero
Costume designer: Milena Canonero
Editor: Monika Willi
Composer: Asaf Sagiv
Casting director: Avy Kaufman
Sales agent: Fortissimo Films

No rating, 94 minutes