Stay out of the sun and watch these under-seen gems set in the summer.
Summer is a decidedly cinema-friendly season, and not just because it gives blockbuster-releasing studios a sizeable bump in profits. The warmer months provide the perfect backdrop for atmospheric movies; films that come with a strong sense of tone, time and place. It’s as if the sizzling heat bakes the narrative right into its setting as each sun-soaked minute passes by.
Conveying the feel of a summer’s day is no easy feat, but it’s one most filmmakers will attempt in their career: directing greats like Steven Spielberg, Ingmar Bergman, Spike Lee, Rob Reiner, François Truffaut and Wes Anderson have all taken on the considerable challenge of evoking all of the sensorial richness of the season with only direct access to two of their audiences’ senses. Each has invoked the spirit of the season for various ends, whether by using the light of the sun as a generously gilding viewpoint in which everything looks better and feels warmer, or by making it serve a more clinical purpose, exposing things the rest of the year has kept hidden in the shade. Some movies use the summertime to conjure up hope and opportunity, whether for travel, new friends, or for the throwing off of inhibitions and the heady indulgence of shallow pleasures. Others appeal to the inverse: so often, summer means the disappointment of all these expectations, as cities empty and all forward movement seems to pause for a few seemingly endless months of sweaty stultification.
If you’re looking for movies that evoke all of this seasonal vividness but have already watched Jaws and Rear Window more times than you can count, then this eclectic list of under-seen summertime movies should keep you satisfied this season:
Blissfully Yours, 2002
The best way to sum up Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s second feature Blissfully Yours is this: the opening credits don’t appear until some 45 minutes into the film. That sense of languid pacing is present throughout the full two-hours-plus of its runtime, as long, lazy takes capture the awkwardness of doctors appointments, the laboriousness of manual work, and the leisurely pleasure of a jungle picnic that melts into an erotic encounter.
Set in the borderlands between Thailand and Myanmar, Blissfully Yours drifts along, casually taking in the intricacies of the relationships between young Burmese migrant Min (Min Oo), who has crossed into Thailand without official papers, his girlfriend Roong (Kanokporn Tongaram) and the maternally-minded, older Orn (Jenjira Jansuda), whom Roong has hired to procure fake documentation for Min. Though it perceives everything – explicit sex scenes included – with the same relaxed gaze, there are always hints of humor and dream-like surrealism under the surface, making Blissfully Yours a thematically enriched, enigmatic addition to this list.
The Little Fugitive, 1953
A cruel trick sends seven-year-old Joey (Richie Andrusco) on the lam in The Little Fugitive, Ray Ashley, Ruth Orkin and Morris Engel’s ground-breaking feature set in the New York of the ‘50s. Home alone for the day, little Joey is left to trail after his increasingly irate older brother Lennie (Richard Brewster), who eventually cooks up an elaborate plan to rid himself of the little rascal: aided by some equally irritated friends and a bottle of ketchup, they trick Joey into believing he’s killed Lennie. This genuinely terrifying prospect sends Joey fleeing to that whimsical wonderland for kids – Coney Island – where the $6 fattening his pocket soon leads him to forget the drama of the day. There’s more than a touch of Our Gang here, both in terms of Fugitive’s adventurous heart and because Joey looks like a member of Hal Roach’s troupe.
Shot surreptitiously on a custom-made, handheld 35mm, Fugitive pioneered the use of concealed movie-making, allowing director-cinematographer Engel to capture the buzzy delights of the boardwalks at their midsummer height without drawing the attention of the crowds. (Both Stanley Kubrick and Jean-Luc Godard admired the results of this ingenious design so much that they asked to borrow Engel’s camera.) This, plus excellent use of non-professional actors and a shoestring budget, meant Fugitive left an indelible mark on cinematic history: as Truffaut put it, “Our New Wave would never have come into being, if it hadn’t been for the young American, Morris Engel, who showed us the way with his production, Little Fugitive.”
Swimming Pool, 2003
There is perhaps nothing more evocative of summer than the azure waters of an overly-chlorinated pool. François Ozon recognized this to great effect in Swimming Pool, his erotic thriller that recalls Jacques Deray’s cult film La Piscine, which in turned inspired Luca Guadagnino’s more comically-tinged A Bigger Splash. While either of the latter two movies would also make for a great summer watch, Swimming Pool edges out the competition thanks to an assured sense of chilly atmosphere amidst the baking heat of the south of France, plus a spine-tingling turn from Charlotte Rampling as Sarah Morton, a crime writer whose surname will register as ominously suggestive with French viewers. In desperate need of a break from drizzly London to cure her writer’s block, Sarah accepts an invitation from her publisher John (Charles Dance) to jumpstart her inspiration on a solo retreat to his beautiful, empty French villa. The unexpected arrival of John’s beguiling, sexually uninhibited daughter Julie (Ludivine Sagnier) disrupts Sarah’s peace until she realizes the young woman’s lack of restraint might be just what her next book needs.
Julie is, incidentally, a version of the kind of character Rampling might have played in her youth, and there’s more than a hint of the inter-generational jealousy of Notes on a Scandal to the way the older woman regards Julie’s carefree manner, which sees her bring a new man to the villa each night – until, suddenly, the men stop coming. The turn of events that follow could be the stuff of a murder mystery (an idea the film’s open ending may be hinting at), giving Swimming Pool an air of psychological ambiguity missing from Deray and Guadagnino’s otherwise excellent movies.
In Celine Sciamma’s Tomboy, ten-year-old Laure (Zoé Héran) makes full use of the self-reinventing power of a summer spent in a new neighborhood. Free from the strictures on her identity usually enforced by institutions and authority – she plays unsupervised with the neighborhood kids – Laure is able to introduce herself to her new friends as Mikael. (Sciamma, who also wrote the film, uses the female pronoun to discuss her character, a practice followed here.)
Tomboy charts Laure/Mikael’s summer of self-exploration as she earns a spot amongst the local gang of boys, develops a crush on a girl, and experiments with self-presentation. But as summer draws to a close and the prospect of school looms, threatening revelation, there are inevitable moments of conflict to be had. Sciamma resists leading things to a melodramatic conclusion, however, just as her protagonist resists self-categorization. Héran navigates this complexity with great subtlety, and the rest of the young cast here are similarly excellent (particularly Malonn Lévana as sympathetic younger sister Jeanne).
Drama was born in ancient Greece some twenty-plus centuries ago, so it’s fitting that a film about something as equally age-old – the middle-aged male obsession with young women – should be set on a Greek island. There’s a harrowing narrative turn late-on in Suntan that throws a much more ominous light on its earlier portions, but pre-twist, there is some sad sympathy and pathetic comedy to be found in Argyris Papadimitropoulos’s movie about a miserable Greek doctor (Makis Papadimitriou) who takes a job on an island during a miserable winter. Local pervs promise him that the summer will transform the island into an idyll, bringing beautiful young women to its shores, but the depressed Kostis (Papadimitriou) seems entirely uninterested in debauchery.
That changes when Anna (Elli Tringou) bursts into his surgery with her band of eclectically European hedonists, catching Kostis’ eye. Apparently smitten, he trails after her from nude beaches to late-night bars, eschewing the company of those his own age in favor of pursuing Anna, who seems to enjoy Kostis’ company in the kind of playful way that doesn’t suggest what Kostis thinks it does: that she envisions a lifelong commitment to him. It’s this specter of sexual entitlement that informs the rest of Suntan, as Kostis refuses to accept he’s misread the situation. As such, Papadimitropoulos’ film will likely prompt differing gendered responses – men might view it as mostly being a cautionary tale against embarrassing yourself in middle age, whereas women might see it perform the same function re: never going near another man again. Ultimately, whatever you take from Suntan will likely stay with you for a long time.
My Summer of Love, 2004
My Summer of Love takes place during the kind of summer that seems to stand apart from the rest of the year, when the overbearing heat tricks you into believing all time is suspended and that the season will never end. It’s that feeling that lays the groundwork for the inter-class romance that takes place between Mona (Natalie Press) and Tamsin (Emily Blunt), two lonely young women forced to spend a very long, and uncustomarily hot, summer in the pastoral hills of Yorkshire.
Tamsin, home from boarding school, has been left to her own devices by her mostly absent parents, while Mona volunteers for solitude so that she doesn’t have to spend time with her sanctimonious born-again Christian, ex-con brother Phil (Paddy Considine). On the surface, their chance meeting is a blessing: what better companion for a bored sixteen-year-old girl than one of her own? To each girl, the other’s poles-apart existence is something exotic to be explored, but while that abates the intense boredom of this never-ending summer for a while, it proves too short-lived a distraction for one half of the couple, who begins to find her amusement elsewhere. There are echoes here of that other great film about love in an English summer – The Go Between – but if you’re looking for a particularly illuminating double feature to pair with Paweł Pawlikowski’s My Summer of Love, you can’t do much better than God’s Own Country, which charts the relationship between a farmer and a migrant worker against a harsh, wintry Yorkshire My Summer of Love doesn’t recognize.
Summer 1993, 2017
Summer 1993 recounts an unforgettable portion of writer-director Carla Simón’s own life: the first summer spent after her mother died of AIDS. Simón’s autobiographical lead here is the six-year-old Frida (Laia Artigas), who is collected from Barcelona by her mother’s brother (David Verdaguer) and his wife (Bruna Cusí) after the fact and taken to live with them in the lush Catalan countryside. There, she finds love, stability, patience and a willing younger sister in cousin Anna (Paula Robles), but Summer 1993 resists the temptation to abandon the tricky topic of Frida’s trauma, evidence of which we witness throughout the film. It’s this mature grasp of the extensive emotional capabilities of children, and the complications that can have on family, that gives away Simón’s proximity to the subject – few directors could imagine the inner workings of a childlike Frida without having lived their story – and it’s what gives Summer 1993 both its precious authenticity and the sense that we’re experiencing something intensely personal. Santiago Racaj’s sun-drunk, beautifully evocative cinematography underscores all of this by framing most of the film from Frida’s diminutive, wide-eyed perspective, a clever emotional technique that recalls similar work in The Florida Project.
Beach Rats, 2017
Like The Little Fugitive, Beach Rats is mostly set on the boardwalks of Coney Island during peak season, although it’s not the child-friendly attractions that pull Frankie (breakout Harris Dickinson) to this shore. Closeted to his troubled family and group of aggressively macho friends, Frankie surfs the web and hits the surf for clandestine night-time hook-ups with older men as he tries to work through the insecurities of his evolving sexual identity.
Eliza Hittman’s film gives him the kind of generosity that life has declined to serve him (his father is terminally ill), and Dickinson matches the director’s sensitivity with a performance entirely set on quietly disproving mainstream notions about young gay men. If you appreciated the way Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight accomplished the same, then the equally beautifully shot Beach Rats is for you.
Gimme the Loot, 2012
When rival graffiti artists deface their work with an image of the New York Mets’ Home Run Apple, Bronx teens Malcolm (Ty Hickson) and Sofia (Tashiana Washington) hatch a bold plan for revenge: they’ll leave their mark, for all the world to see, on the real Apple. Adam Leon’s indie debut follows Malcolm and Sofia’s increasingly wild efforts (exacerbated by a two-day heat-wave) as they try to hustle their way closer to the $500 they need to bribe their way into Citi Field, taking in daring schemes revolving around stolen shoes and jewelry heists.
Gimme the Loot, which won the Grand Jury Prize at SXSW in 2012, captures the youthful uninhibitedness of NYC in its authentically New Yorker protagonists. Their naturalistic dialogue, genuine chemistry and easy relationship with this famously overwhelming city make the whole thing look like a breeze, and feel like a breath of fresh air.
The Green Ray, 1986
If you wanted to, you could fill this entire list with Éric Rohmer’s films: from Pauline at the Beach and Claire’s Knee to A Summer’s Tale and La Collectionneuse, much of the work of this father of the French New Wave is evidence of his total preoccupation with the season. But there’s something special about The Green Ray (originally marketed as Summer in the US), which captures the inevitable underside to the kind of sunny expectations people usually enter the season with: disappointment.
Frequent Rohmer collaborator Marie Rivière mostly improvises as Delphine, a young woman who has just had her summer vacation plans unceremoniously scrapped by her newly-smitten travel buddy. Faced with the prospect of a disappointing summer in deserted Paris, the indecisive Delphine flits between various holiday invitations from friends, but her stints in Cherbourg and the Alps don’t last long, as personal insecurities about her singlehood mushroom amongst her coterie of insufferably loved-up friends. This is, ostensibly, a film about one woman’s quest to have a summer holiday, but The Green Ray quickly establishes itself as an achingly insightful movie about the frantic chase for something profound amidst a season that is best characterized by its shallowness.