I love a road movie. They’re inherently cinematic — full of new locations, new sights to see, and characters always in motion — and they literalize the idea of characters “going on a journey” over the course of a film.
Summerland, the new road-trip comedy from directing team Lankyboy (Kurtis David Harder & Noah Kentis), is an impressive feat of indie filmmaking. Filmed with a skeleton crew that actually lived in the RV they were filming in, Summerland has no right to look as good as it does. There are scenes that stretch from Seattle to Las Vegas and from San Francisco to London, and most of the locations were filmed guerilla-style without permits. I just wish the story had a little more meat on its bones.
The film is centres around a trio of friends who are driving cross-country to attend a music festival, while keeping secrets from each other. Oliver (Rory Saper) is moving back to London soon and hasn’t broken the news to his girlfriend Stacey (Maddie Phillips); meanwhile, Bray (Chris Ball, who also co-wrote the script) is excited to get to the music festival so he can meet up with Shawn (Dylan Playfair), the guy he’s been sexting with. The only problem is, Bray has been catfishing Shawn… using pictures of Stacey, who has no idea.
Lankyboy describe the film as “our love letter to buddy comedy road trip movies of the early 2000s.” The influence is clear — there are the requisite digressions about sex and drinking, a drugged-out day in the woods, and a bender sparked by a briefcase full of mystery drugs. However, it’s far more muted than the zany, manic energy of something like a Road Trip or Eurotrip, meaning much of the focus is instead on the coming-of-age “journey” the characters are undergoing. Unfortunately, this is where the movie falters.
The character whose arc is given the most attention is Bray, the gay friend who is catfishing a guy with his best friend’s girlfriend’s pictures. Bray is clearly uncomfortable with being gay — he describes himself as someone who’s looking for connection, not experiences. He believes wholeheartedly that when he gets to the music festival and introduces himself to Shawn, Shawn will accept him as he is because their connection is so strong. When the friends meet an out-and-proud gay man (Khephra Lord) who invites them to a party, Bray shies away from the chance to hook up, fleeing the party and rushing back to the safety of the RV instead.
What saves the film are the fun performances from the talented young cast, in particular Maddie Phillips as Stacey. She’s a blast on Netflix’s new show Teenage Bounty Hunters, and she’s captivating here too, holding the group together even as Oliver and Bray’s antics threaten to ruin the trip they have planned. She’s up for some fun but stands up for herself when she needs to, and it almost made me that wish she’d been the focal point of the film rather than Bray.
By the abrupt ending — this is the kind of film that just ends — it doesn’t necessarily feel like the characters have learned much of anything. As fun and eventful as it was, this summer road trip doesn’t feel particularly impactful in their lives, just one event in a long string of them. They may look back on their time fondly — as I’m sure the filmmakers do — but I don’t know that any of them have been changed by it.
And maybe that’s the point — these coming-of-age narratives we construct for ourselves often fall apart at the end. (This is not necessarily a spoiler, but) the guy you’re in love with might not be okay with the fact that you’ve been pretending to be a girl online, and where does that leave your grand romantic gesture of driving across the country to meet him? What happens to the memory of your last wonderful week with your girlfriend, if you necessarily have to sully that memory by eventually telling her it’s your last week together?
I’m not sure that makes for a narratively satisfying film, especially one this short. We barely hit the 75 minute mark before the credits start to roll, before the characters have had a chance to really grapple with the consequences of what they’ve experienced. However, Summerland is never less than watchable and engaging, and as an indie filmmaking experiment, it’s quite impressive.
Final note: Please stop naming your movies Summerland. This is the second Summerland to come out in the last six weeks, to say nothing of the films called Summerland released in 2010, 2016, two in 2017, and 2018, let alone the Lori Loughlin / Jesse McCartney / Zac Efron TV show Summerland, which ran from 2004-2005. I weep for your SEO!
By Eric Langberg
Summerland is available to rent on VOD services now!