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Celebrate the all-inclusive musical joy of ‘Best Summer Ever’

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All criticism is subjective.

While we can steep our reviews of films or books or albums in an effort toward objectivity, the truth is that our own personal tastes and biases are going to be part of the equation. It’s the nature of the business – our opinions are what form the foundation of our writings on the matter.

And yet, sometimes, we’re gifted with a piece of art that manages to largely transcend that struggle between the subjective and objective. We read or watch or hear something that establishes its value and purity simply through being what it is. One can try to attach judgments or measurements to it, but its power is made obvious by the fact that it exists.

“Best Summer Ever” is that kind of art. It’s an original musical, directed by Michael Parks Randa and Lauren Smitelli from a script co-penned by the two plus Will Halby, Terra Mackintosh and Andrew Pilkington. The film is the latest project from Zeno Mountain Farm, a camp whose mission is to immerse the disabled and non-disabled in the arts.

And it is an absolute delight.

Featuring an entirely inclusive cast, “Best Summer Ever” is unique in that that inclusivity isn’t central to the plot. It simply is, in a manner that practically vibrates with joyous energy. It is a sweet and good-hearted story of young love, featuring a number of original songs and a winking affection for other examples of the teen movie musical genre. It is a charming and often hilarious film, one that illustrates the possibilities that come with refusing to let our differences define us.

It’s the end of the summer. Tony (Rickey Alexander Wilson) has spent it at dance camp, chasing his passion. In that time, he’s also fallen for Sage (Shannon DeVido), a fellow camper. It was a glorious time, but autumn looms – the two must go their separate ways. Tony’s heading back to New York City, while Sage readies to hit the road with her cannabis growing moms (Eileen Grubba and Holly Palmer).

Only it turns out that Tony wasn’t being truthful about his post-camp plans. He headed home, all right, but not to NYC. Instead, he returns to his small Midwestern town where he’s the star kicker for the football team, the only hope for the squad to break a streak of 25 years of futility in the annual Homecoming matchup. He’s conflicted about his situation; he loves football, but he loves dance as well – and reconciling the two won’t be easy, especially as he lives under the same roof as his coach (Bradford Haynes).

The pressure’s on from the moment school starts – and it’s not just football. Head cheerleader Beth (MuMu) is bound and determined to be crowned Homecoming Queen and she thinks having a football star like Tony on her arm will do the trick. Meanwhile, quarterback Cody (Jacob Waltuck) resents Tony’s stardom and wants the spotlight to himself.

But when circumstances leave Sage and her family stranded in the same town where Tony lives, giving her her first opportunity to attend public school, Tony’s deception is revealed. And the presence of Sage leads Tony to rethink his priorities and to wonder if maybe – just maybe – he can be more than just a football player.

Of course, Sage’s appearance isn’t going to derail Beth’s plans; she and Cody team up in an effort to ensure that they both get exactly what they want … at the expense of Sage of Tony.

A lot of this might sound familiar. That’s intentional – one of the best things about “Best Summer Ever” is its unabashed adoration for the teen musical stories that came before. Whether it is the numerous parallels with the beloved “High School Musical Franchise” or the more subtle nods – a dance scene in a barn straight out of “Footloose” or a befuddled mascot making a direct allusion to “Grease” – this is a movie willing to have a ton of fun with its inspirations. That embrace of formula could have proved to be a misstep, but the commitment to the bit is so thorough – and so sincere – that it absolutely works.

“Best Summer Ever” might be the most purely inclusive feature film that I have ever seen. And not in the well-meaning-but-often-condescending “very special episode” manner that we too often get. This is a movie that simply treats everyone the same. It sounds basic, but think about it – how often do we see films or TV shows where a disabled person is defined solely by their disability? There’s none of that here – we engage with everyone on the same fundamental level.

And it is glorious.

Too often, we allow our own cynicism about the world to interfere with our enjoyment of it. “Best Summer Ever” is a lot of things, but cynical ain’t one of them. There’s a glow to this film, a light that makes it nigh-impossible to watch with anything other than a smile on your face.

The performers vary significantly in terms of experience, but they all pin the needle in terms of enthusiasm. And that’s what movies like this need – if the cast buys in, we’ll buy in. And this cast BUYS IN. The leads are great – Wilson and DeVido have a lovely chemistry throughout (and DeVido can flat-out SING). As our “villains,” we get a delightful comic turn from Waltuck and a fantastic mean girl tour de force from MuMu (who was also a key part of developing the film’s also excellent music). And all you need to know about the ensemble is how hard they go for it in the big production numbers. In addition, the film has a few famous faces that pop up in cameos – Maggie Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgard as a reporter and cameraman and Benjamin Bratt and his real-life daughter Sophia giving Tony a lift.

“Best Summer Ever” is a movie unlike anything you’ve seen before, an exuberant celebration of the teen musical genre packed with joyful noise. The story is sweet and funny, the songs slap and the message is pure and powerful. A truly unforgettable film experience.

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Thursday, 29 April 2021 12:32

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