In a year that brought us the Academy Award-nominated Crip Camp, the disability revolution continues with Best Summer Ever, a kinda sorta teen musical so sugary sweet that I got 13 cavities by the end of the delightful, entertaining, and inspired film co-directed by Michael Parks Randa and Lauren Smitelli and centered around Sage (Shannon DeVido) and Tony (Rickey Alexander Wilson), two lovebird wannabes who have a summer camp fling before parting ways only to cross paths again when Sage unexpectedly shows up as the new girl in Tony's high school.
If the plot sounds a little familiar, it is.
Best Summer Ever is an absolute delight from beginning to end. It's a film that saw its promising indie fest tour implode due to the COVID-19 pandemic, most notably its planned world premiere at SXSW in 2020, but it's also a film deservedly found its way into several fests anyway including my own hometown Heartland International Film Festival where it picked up the Richard D. Propes Social Impact Award for Narrative Feature.
Richard D. Propes? Wait a minute. That's me.
Yeah, I know. That's weird.
But, seriously. When we started screening films for the 2020 award, I knew by the end of film's 78-minute running time that I'd found my winner. It's not simply because Best Summer Ever includes characters with disabilities played by an abundance of actors and actresses with disabilities.
Not at all. That's admirable, but that's not enough. As a film critic with multiple disabilities myself, I aim higher.
Best Summer Ever picked up the Richard D. Propes Social Impact Award because it normalizes and humanizes and celebrates the disability experience and life and culture. These characters are not, in fact, inherently people with disabilities. They're characters portrayed by talented, spirited actors with disabilities and without disabilities with intertwining lives and cultures and storylines. Best Summer Ever isn't about disability, yet disability becomes integral to its spirit and life. It's never a negative, frequently a positive, and quite often simply a fact.
It's impossible to simply ignore the disability lens here and, quite honestly, I don't want to do so because it's hard enough for actors and other film professionals with disabilities to find work. When it happens, it needs to be amplified.
Yet, the beauty of this disability lens is that it's integral to yet woven into the diverse tapestry that is life. Disability makes Best Summer Ever a richer film but never becomes the focal point of the film.
Will you notice that our hottie new girl Sage is a wheelchair user?
Will you notice that her beau to be is the quarterback of the football team?
Again, of course.
These things aren't mutually exclusive. They aren't a gimmick. They aren't, but are often portrayed in Hollywood as, inspiration porn.
This is life.
Disabled people live.
Disabled people go to school.
Disabled people sing and dance and make jokes.
Disabled people have sex.
Disabled people work.
Disabled people fight.
Disabled people are actors and writers and filmmakers and film critics.
Life is one wildly diverse and amazing tapestry and all of that comes beautifully to life in Best Summer Ever.
Best Summer Ever really soars because of the strength of Shannon DeVido, an actress who's been working in Hollywood for the past 15 years in short films, occasional television spots, and beyond. She's regularly seen in the highly amplifying Easterseals Disability Film Challenge (of which this critic serves as a judge). DeVido has a winning presence, a spot-on sense of comic timing, and a rather remarkable singing voice. When she's on the big screen, you're watching.
As one might expect in what is essentially a modestly budgeted indie project and the latest film to come out of Zeno Mountain Farm (Becoming Bulletproof), acting can be occasionally a little more hit-and-miss when it comes down to the bit players and the film's spirited and enthusiastic tunes get by more on their relentlessly good cheer than they do actual musical performance. However, these are minor quibbles in a film that accomplishes very much what it sets out to do.
In addtion to DeVido's winning turn here, Rickey Alexander Wilson shines with a soulful, transparent performance as Tony. He's a football player who dreams of something else, yet he's grown up in athletic expectations and has a hard time letting his true self shine through.
Together, both Sage and Tony begin to find the strength to stop hiding and start living.
There are other familiar faces here. Peanut Butter Falcon's Zack Gottsagen is here as a cheerleader, while Becoming Bulletproof vets Ajani "AJ" Murray and Jeremy Vest are always a welcome presence. Longtime activist and disabled creative Lawrence Carter-Long is a hoot in a too brief appearance. There are a handful of Hollywood faves in mostly supporting performances such as Eileen Grubba, Benjamin Bratt, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Peter Sarsgaard among others. The film's producers include Gyllenhaal, Sarsgaard, Ted Danson, Mary Steenburgen, Jamie Lee Curtis, Amy Brenneman and others.
Best Summer Ever includes eight original songs. They are cheesy yet joy-filled, familiar yet impossible to forget. Jamie Lawrence's original music will leave you smiling while Chris Westlund's lensing for the film is a kaleidoscope of diversity and humanity and real human experiences. Shari Bisnaught's costume design for the film feels honest and true to the characters and kudos to Laurel Sager for a production design that weaves together the best of Disney Channel with the fun of Broadway and creates a little village you'll want to visit yourself.
There are a myriad of beautiful things about Best Summer Ever but, at least for me, one of the most impressive is how it so vividly and entertainingly incorporates the culture of disability into its tapestry without having to announce it. It feels awkward, in a way, to even mention because, quite honestly, Best Summer Ever simply yet passionately makes it such an integral part of the film's culture that it need not be announced.
Best Summer Ever is, indeed, about the best summer ever. Sage and Tony start to fall in love, but it's not really until they show up authentically representing themselves and their lives that they really fall in love and the wonder of it all unfolds.
That's social impact. That's Best Summer Ever.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic