My Favorite Movies – Last Summer (2013)

10 Jun

By Tanner Smith

Mark Thiedeman’s “Last Summer” has this in common with 45RPM–both independent films were made in Arkansas and they both premiered at the 2013 Little Rock Film Festival. (They were also probably the most talked-about selections in the festival.)

I wasn’t as active in the festival as I would be a year later, when I was part of the press and would see as many of the festival’s films as I could. So, I didn’t see “Last Summer” because my mind was more focused on “45RPM” and the made-in-Arkansas short films. When Mark Thiedeman won the LRFF2013 Best Arkansas Director award for “Last Summer” was when I regretted missing it. I’d surely see it some day…

Then I saw Thiedeman’s follow-up film, Sacred Hearts, Holy Souls, at the 2014 Little Rock Film Festival–I was as blown away as everyone else who saw it. (“Sacred Hearts,” by the way, is still a masterpiece seven years later–I love coming back to it every now and then. It’s a real treasure of a film.) After practically singing its praises in a review, I wondered when I could see “Last Summer.”

Shortly after, “Last Summer” was released on-demand. So, I checked it out…

I was perplexed. Maybe a little confused. Maybe even a little annoyed. But I was intrigued.

It was very slow. It seemed to rely more on atmosphere than character. It seemed rather void of traditional narrative structure. And by the end, I didn’t feel as emotionally overwhelmed as I think writer-director Mark Thiedeman intended.

I told myself as time went on that it wasn’t for me–but I still thought about it often. I thought about the beautiful cinematography that showed off the summertime nature setting and made me feel like I was there. I thought about that special last summer for most of us before we have to break away from our loved ones. I thought about the film’s small-town setting and how it reminded me so much of my own upbringing in a Northeast Arkansas small town. I thought about that dialogue-heavy opening scene that establishes the mood for the rest of the film. I thought about that ending some more. I thought, hey wait a minute, I should watch this again!

And watch it again, I did. A few more times, actually, on Netflix. And after catching it again recently on Tubi long since that last Netflix streaming (I think it was 3-4 years ago?), I knew I should write about it for “My Favorite Movies”–because it still speaks to me.

“Last Summer” is essentially a 70-minute visual poem about the emotions felt by a teenaged small-town-Arkansan named Luke (Samuel Pettit) who is facing the end of a romance between him and his boyfriend Jonah (Sean Rose), who is leaving for college. Luke is a talented athlete but a mediocre student, whereas Jonah is seemingly great at everything. (According to Luke, Jonah even sold a painting he made when he was 4 years old.) We all had that in common, whether with best friends or with lovers, where the main thing you have in common is each other.

The film begins with an overture, as Beethoven’s “Piano Concerto No. 5” plays over about five minutes of images that will more or less play a part in what we’re about to see. I highly advise you to stick with it because what follows is a key introductory scene establishing character through dialogue.

This scene, which features a conversation between Luke and his summer-school math teacher (Deb Lewis), gives us all the exposition we need, and it’s written carefully and beautifully. It sets us up for the rest of the film, which simply shows us rural working-class homes, small-town life, the boys walking through the woods, and so on. We know what the central dilemma is for Luke and Jonah, which is similar to a theme in one of my personal favorite films, War Eagle, Arkansas–will you stay in your comfortable hometown or will you leave and see what else is out there?

And the best part is that it’s not spelled out for us in this imagery (or even in the voiceovers from the boys that appears at one point or another). Luke and Jonah don’t even exchange a lot of dialogue with each other, but I can still tell how they feel about each other. It takes a talented filmmaker like Thiedeman to pull off something like that.

It also takes talented actors to assist as well. Samuel Pettit is excellent as Luke–he hits every perfect note that he has to portray with this character, and it feels as though he IS this character. Sean Rose is also terrific as Jonah, who arguably has the more complex dilemma of the two leads, seeing as how he knows he has more opportunities than Luke and isn’t sure he wants to fulfill all of them. Also, Deb Lewis does solid work as she sympathizes with Luke’s situation (as seen in the aforementioned expository opener).

Something else I admire about the film is how it was shot. To my understanding, it was shot with Canon DSLR cameras and in natural light, which helps give it that raw passion and style. I don’t see a pretentious indie film project trying to be “edgy”–I see Mark Thiedeman making a labor of love and inviting me to share the experience rather than distract from it.

So, “Last Summer” is not “traditional,” as I mentioned in an above paragraph. So what? Artists have different ways of presenting their art and you either go along with it or you don’t. And as far as the argument of “Last Summer” being “too slow” for some people goes, well…I’ve seen Gus Van Sant’s “Gerry,” so what else you got?

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