Despite being from her point of view, ‘Summer ’03’ keeps teen’s world at a timid distance (Movie review)

“Summer ’03” (2018) had the misfortune of coming out the same year as “Eighth Grade,” which showed new blood can be wrung from the stone of coming-of-age dramedies. Stacked against other entries in the genre – but especially that one – “Summer ’03” is tame, without a sharp or original perspective. The trappings of a decent film are here, including lead actress Joey King – very much in her “She’ll be a star someday” mode – and nice Georgia cinematography (although the film takes place in Cincinnati for some reason) by Ben Hardwicke.

Granted, Jamie Winkle (King) does go through a notably “f*****-up” summer, especially as seen through the teenaged lens, and she does experience the threshold moment of her first love (or so she thinks), with Luke (Jack Kilmer). But writer-director Becca Gleason – better at the latter – wraps the film with the same voiceover narration it starts with, as if admitting Jamie hasn’t changed all that much.

“Summer ’03” might’ve worked as a tone poem, but – despite having Hardwicke as an asset – it doesn’t give us any montages of washed-out summery scenery along with pop hits of the time. The most nostalgia is wrung out of mentions of “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” hitting bookshelves and Jamie using one of those brick-type Nokia cellphones (yep, 2003 is now a nostalgic time – deal with it).

In brief montages where Jamie reflects on what has happened so far in the summer, editor Josie Azzam reuses images, giving the impression that this is a tight and cheap project. (If so, the crew made it as good as it could be.) Indeed, the closing credits are quite short for a modern film.

Gleason structures the movie as a comedy, but it’s not very funny. Jamie falls for the slightly older Luke, and I thought there would be good material upcoming about how she misunderstands his interest. As a prospective priest, after all, he would take interest in anyone who comes into his church seeking to learn more about the religion. However, he turns out to be a predictable young man, with young-man interests.

Additional comedy is supposed to come from the Winkle family, reeling from deathbed revelations of Jamie’s grandmother, Dottie (June Squibb). Dottie tells Jamie’s father, Ned (Paul Scheer), that his father was not his biological father, so Ned tracks down his bio-dad in Germany. Herman (Rick Andosca) moves in, and his entire characterization consists of spouting anti-Semitic slurs at Jamie’s mother, Shira (Andrea Savage). Meanwhile, in her dying advice to Jamie, Dottie emphasizes the value of giving a good “b***j**.”

But the strangest thing about the Winkle family isn’t emphasized. Hope (Erin Darke) is Dottie’s daughter. While Dottie notes she had Hope late in life, if you do the math and assume the actresses are playing close to their ages, it means she gave birth to Hope when she was about 65. Now that could’ve been a movie.

As Jamie’s friends, Emily and March, Kelly Lamor Wilson and Stephen Ruffin have good presence – Wilson with somewhat of a Kirsten Dunst vibe. Jamie pursuing at Luke instead of March – with whom she loves talking about the “Harry Potter” books (whereas Luke “waits for the movies” – ugh) – might’ve been a good thread to emphasize. But even with Jamie being the main character and regularly delivering voiceovers, we get no insight into her selection.

I guess teens are easily distracted by the new thing, and unintentionally cruel, and living in their own heightened world. Fair enough, but “Summer ’03” – for all its surface appeal and faux-edginess – is too timid to let us into that world like the best films of the genre do.

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