Summer Days, Summer Nights never really has any “grabber” moments. It’s got a couple big misses, one I’ve got a lot to say about, the other would technically be a spoiler. If it weren’t also a total cop-out. The movie looks the cop-out in the eye and blinks, with writer, director, and costar Burns deciding to acknowledge the big miss he’s committing to making.
Directing-wise, Burns does a fabulous job with Summer Days. The film takes place over Summer 1982 in resort-town Long Island. It’s on a budget, so Burns figures out all these great ways to showcase what he’s got to budget to include. There’s a big block party set-piece, and it’s beautifully done. Shame it comes at the end of the first act, and Burns never tries anything else anywhere near as complex or ambitious with the rest of the picture.
It’s also where the soundtrack—with one exception, the movie’s got a great soundtrack—intentionally reminds of Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Summer Nights shows its hand a little much. Burns is doing an eighties teenager movie without any gratuitous sex or racism. There’s non-gratuitous sex, of course. But no racism of any kind. There aren’t any Black people. Lindsey Morgan and Anthony Ramos are Latinx. They’re it for people of color.
There’s also no class privilege stuff, which is weird because it’s part of the setup.
But Burns also isn’t doing a revisionist eighties teen sex comedy. Every female character in the movie proves her worth by having a boyfriend. Summer Days doesn’t just not pass Bechdel; it doesn’t even entertain the possibility it may. There’s even a terrible insert scene where Rita Volk cries to mom Susan Misner about how a boy likes her, and she likes him too, and it’s just not fair for some reason. Burns’s script is a series of romantic dramedy tropes. They never succeed, but sometimes the cast is likable enough, or the filmmaking’s solid enough; it doesn’t matter.
Other times it matters. Especially with Volk’s arc.
The film’s split between three couples. First, there’s protagonist Pico Alexander, playing the son of Burns’s character. They’re working-class, but Alexander only hangs out with the rich kids. When Summer starts, he’s planning on going to college to become a Wall Street tycoon, even though everyone tells him to be a writer. The writing thing isn’t important. It’s Burns’s biggest backstory cop-out. Right away, rich girl girlfriend Carly Brooke dumps him, and he soon finds summer romance with slightly older woman Morgan.
Morgan tells him it’s just going to be a fling. We don’t find out anything about her backstory until the second half of the movie, despite her being the strongest female character.
There’s just no time with the other arcs.
Like Ramos and Caitlin Stasey. They were high school sweethearts, and she broke his heart. Fast forward seven years, she’s back in town. Now, neither Ramos nor Stasey have any personality outside this backstory, so they’ve got couple friends, Zoe Levin and Jon Rudnitsky, to keep their story busy. Levin and Rudnitsky are sort of Summer Days’s unsung heroes, right up until the third act when Burns forgets they were around. But Ramos and Stasey’s plot is a “will they or won’t they” one.
Then again, so’s Volk’s arc with Amadeus Serafini. Serafini is Alexander’s cousin and staying with him and Burns for the summer. Burns sets Serafini up with a job at Misner’s dock, where daughter Volk also works. Volk’s sad her rich boy boyfriend left her for the summer, and Serafini’s got the hots for her because… she’s a girl, and he’s a boy. There’s no other story to them.
Until we get to Serafini’s live music performance, which is kind of a surfer dude Bruce Springsteen song, only it’s a creepy, controlling stalker song about how Volk needs to get with Serafini, or her life is meaningless. He sings it to her in public. It’s a lot. Like, there’s a concept for a relationship there, but the movie does nothing with it. Instead, it’s just Serafini mooning soulfully at Volk about why she should love him back.
Burns does seem to think the eighties setting and the decidedly strong production values are enough to get him a pass on all the lazy, shallow writing, but he is incorrect. They are not enough, mainly since his enthusiasm—directing-wise—for the eighties setting lessens after the first act and is immaterial by the third, except the occasional payphone.
And the third act’s so dramatically inert, strong production values aren’t going to help.
Best performances are Rudnitsky, Ramos, Stasey, and Levin. They kind of come in a bundle. Alexander and Morgan aren’t exactly good, but they’re very likable. They’re the most fun couple, thanks to that likability. Serafini and Volk are the worst. When he’s doing soulful surfer dude, Serafini almost makes it. When he’s weird creeper coworker, not so much. Volk’s got the worst part in the movie, and it’s kind of impressive she’s never terrible. She doesn’t have enough of a part to be bad; it’s a dreadful role.
It’s pretty clear by the second act Burns doesn’t actually have anywhere to go with Summer Days, Summer Nights. But he knows how to get an hour and forty minutes out of that inertia. Unfortunately, ever-competent and often exquisite filmmaking isn’t enough to make the third act palatable.
Even with lower and lower expectations, Summer Days, Summer Nights disappoints. It’s too bad. It looks phenomenal—William Rexer’s photography, Timothy J. Feeley’s editing, Stephen Beatrice’s production design, and Rosemary Lepre Forman’s costume design. They all do great work, as does Burns as far as directing.
Shame Burns didn’t make the script worth the production or even actors.
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