The Joys of Summer

By  · Published on August 4th, 2016

Feeling down about this summer? Here are two movies that may lift your spirits.

The waning weeks of the summer movie season are never easy. With a few notable exceptions, it’s easy for movie fandom writ-large to feel as if the best blockbusters of the year are behind them by the time we reach August. In 2016, that sentiment came much earlier than in years past. On July 1, Matt Singer noted in an editorial at ScreenCrush that we were already experiencing one of the worst summers for blockbusters in the modern era. A month later, we’re staring down the barrel of Suicide Squad, arguably the last big movie of the season, which is currently getting pummeled by critics including yours truly. We’re in a dark place, there’s no denying that.

But it’s more than a lack of success. There’s also some thematic glue to the idea that this summer has been darker and less fun than normal. How many movies have involved the potential destruction of Earth, humanity, civilization, or a combination of the three? Even as it tells a small story about a ragtag group of bad guys, Suicide Squad can’t stop itself from wedging in some apocalyptic stakes. Little of it feels earned, even less of it pays off with satisfaction. If you’re an avid moviegoer such as myself, you’re more likely to be exhausted at this point.

What I’d like to do today is take a look at two movies that have, at least for me, worked against this trend and delivered messages of joy and hope. There are other candidates, like Finding Dory (the season’s highest grossing movie), Swiss Army Man (for those who love a good bit of strange), and even Ghostbusters (for fans with open minds), but two movies really come to mind when I think about feeling great during their closing credits. The first takes place in deep space.

Star Trek Beyond

Justin Lin’s Star Trek Beyond, the third movie in what is now known as “The Kelvin Timeline” (but could just as easily be called “The J.J. Abrams Timeline”) is nothing short of a modern blockbuster marvel. It was January of last year when Roberto Orci left the project and Lin was brought on as director. A new pair of writers (Simon Pegg and Doug Jung) were told to start over with the script. Eighteen months later, which is very short in the world of making tentpole films, they delivered a very good film. For context, a film like Star Wars: The Force Awakens was in the scripting stage beginning in late–2012. It shot in early 2014 and wasn’t released until the end of 2015. In order to keep their release date (aligned with the 50th anniversary of the original series), the Star Trek crew worked at relative warp speed.

This might have been a decent excuse for a lackluster film, but that’s not what they delivered. With Pegg and Jung’s script, the former Fast & Furious director Lin delivered a hybrid of the best of the Abrams-verse Trek (lots of big, fun space action) and a delightful mix of old school Trek thoughtfulness. Thematically, the film delivered an answer to some of our real world societal struggles: it pitted a sense of selfism (a villain who sees the peace and diversity of The Federation as weakness) against strength in numbers and intellectualism. In as much as a movie can be, it’s both a joyous diversion and a thoughtful response to the state of our world.

It’s also a rip-roaring action movie infused with a number of exciting new characters, including Sofia Boutella, the breakout star of Kingsman and future foil for Tom Cruise’s Mummy remake. Her work as Jaylah, a strong warrior who finds herself stranded alongside the crew of The Enterprise on a mysterious planet, is top notch. Paired with Pegg’s Montgomery Scott, the duo delivers comedy and heart, two things Beyond has in abundance. This combination of smarts and sparks make Beyond a brisk, exciting ride with a classically Star Trek positivity. It’s the exact kind of modern blockbuster that has always been lurking in the ethos of Star Trek, but has yet to truly rise in the modern era.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople

If you’re a longtime reader of this publication, you are no doubt aware of Taika Waititi. We’ve been covering his movies – including the drop-dead funny mockumentary What We Do In The Shadows – for years. If you aren’t familiar with his work, you’re about to be. He’s been tapped by Marvel to direct Thor: Ragnarok. If getting familiar with Waititi’s work is on your agenda, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is an excellent entry point.

Newcomer Julian Dennison plays Ricky Baker, a product of the foster care system described (and mostly misunderstood) as “a bad egg.” In his one last chance to find a home and stay out of trouble, he goes to live with Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and her husband Hec (Sam Neill) on their farm near New Zealand’s vast bush. Just as he’s getting settled in, tragedy strikes and Ricky decides that he’s going to head out on his own. What follows is Ricky and Hec, the subjects of a manhunt through the wilderness, exploring the bush and their own feelings about where their lives go next.

Based on that synopsis, it might not sound like a particularly happy movie. But as he’s wont to do, Waititi explores serious subjects – in this case loneliness, survival, and heavy doses of ennui – with refreshing amounts of lightheartedness. Dennison and Neill have incredible chemistry, whether they’re talking about the beauty of the New Zealand countryside, crafting Haikus, or talking Tupac. It’s a classic reluctant camaraderie story with emotion that sways like trees in a gentle breeze between sad, bittersweet, and rambunctious adventure. By the end, it delivers a hopeful, honest message about kinship. Because sometimes, all we really need is a bit of friendship to feel better about a world that’s crumbling around us.

The ultimate point is that if you’re feeling down about Summer Movie Season 2016, there are options out there that will lift your spirits. I found myself similarly afflicted a few weeks back. Within a 10-day period, viewings of Star Trek Beyond and Hunt for the Wilderpeople (combined with a binge of Stranger Things on Netflix) turned it around for me. The hope is that it might do the same for you.

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Neil Miller is the persistently-bearded Publisher of Film School Rejects, Nonfics, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the Executive Producer of the One Perfect Shot TV show (currently streaming on HBO Max) and the co-host of Trial By Content on The Ringer Podcast Network. He can be found on Twitter here: @rejects (He/Him)