'Summer '03': Film Review

A fast and funny entry in a familiar genre.

Joey King plays a 16-year-old whose life is changed by her grandmother's dying words in Becca Gleason's coming-of-age dark comedy.

It's rare that a film doesn't start out in such a way that you can pretty much anticipate everything that comes next. Thankfully, that is not the case with Becca Gleason's raunchy coming-of-age comedy Summer '03. The film begins with a broadly comic scene in which an elderly woman makes some very startling deathbed confessions to her family. But even while you're groaning at the prospect of watching cartoonish characters behave in silly fashion for the next 90 minutes or so, the story goes in a much different direction. Featuring a terrific lead performance by Joey King (recently seen in Netflix's The Kissing Booth), Summer '03 emerges as an unexpected gem.

To be fair, that opening scene is riotously funny. It depicts the dying Dotty (June Squibb, stealing the film in just a few minutes of screen time) coming clean just before she meets her maker. She tells her Jewish daughter-in-law Shira (Andrea Savage) that she never liked her. She tells her son Ned (Paul Scheer) that the man he thought of as his father really wasn't. And she tells her adolescent grandson that he's a "homosexual."

Dotty has not one but two revelations for her 16-year-old granddaughter Jamie (King). The first is that Dotty had Jamie secretly baptized as a baby so she wouldn't go to hell. The second is more of a piece of advice, as she informs Jamie that she must learn how to give a proper blowjob. A few moments later, Dotty promptly expires.

The family, needless to say, is shaken up by the deathbed disclosures, especially Ned, who soon goes off in search of his birth father. Jamie, wrestling with the knowledge of her unexpected religious connection, seeks advice from the priest at the neighborhood church. She instead meets Luke (Jack Kilmer), a young, hunky seminarian for whom she has an immediate attraction. He also gets her to thinking about her grandmother's dying words of advice.

As the summer proceeds, Jamie and Luke begin seeing each other on the sly. She takes her first stab at oral sex, although she finds the experience underwhelming. "It was like a fleshy sock puppet," she laments about what she finds. As Jamie spends the summer wrestling with her blossoming sexuality, including dealing with a longtime friend (Stephen Ruffin) who's developed a crush on her, her family members cope with the ramifications of Dotty's final words. Ned even finds and brings home his real father (Rick Andosca, another scene stealer) who, much to Shira's chagrin, turns out to be a blatant anti-Semite.

There's nothing terribly new under the sun about any of what transpires. But writer-director Gleason has crafted a film that manages to be simultaneously funny, touching and sensitive. The sly humor often sneaks up on you, and even the more extreme plot elements, such as when Jamie commandeers a church service to make some startling confessions of her own, never go too far over the top.

King is hugely appealing as the emotionally struggling Jamie, conveying so many emotions with her endlessly expressive features that she seems to single-handedly define female teenage angst. Savage and Scheer are also terrific, mining the beleaguered parents' travails for equal amounts of emotion and comedy. One of the film's most refreshing attributes is that it features one of those rare onscreen families whose members appear to actually know and like each other.

Production companies: Tadmor, Big Cat Productions
Distributor: Blue Fox Entertainment
Cast: Joey King, Andrea Savage, Paul Scheer, Jack Kilmer, Erin Darke, June Squibb, Kelly Lamor Wilson, Logan Medina
Director-screenwriter: Becca Gleason
Producers: Alexandre Dauman, Eyal Rimmon
Executive producers: Gideon Tadmor, Jim Kaufman
Director of photography: Ben Hardwicke
Production designer: Sam Hensen
Editor: Josie Azzam
Composer: Nathan Mathew David
Costume designer: Stefanie Del Papa

95 minutes