Last Summer is a surprising film that paints an honest portrait of adolescence. There is no cutesy nostalgia on display, but a wide range of changing and evolving emotions, a huge amount of insecurity and self-doubt and the wandering adventure of new experiences. The film is a slow boil, painted mostly through an episodic nature that slowly strips away stereotypes and the guarded nature people. Characters emerge as one note, distinguished through their physicality, blonde, brunette, girl, boy… but things are never as they seem.
The film begins as the story of a budding friendship between Sandy, Peter and Dan. They are on vacation on Long Island, and they have an entire summer ahead of them. Sandy is striking, and immediately draws the boys in. She is the same age as they are, but seems to exude confidence and intelligence. She seems older than she is, something that young woman almost always hold over young man.
Their first shared experience, is saving a gull that has swallowed a fish hook. Sandy makes the bird her pet, and keeps it tied to her porch, feeding it garbage now and then. This childish, though seemingly harmless act of animal cruelty sets the stage for the film as Sandy is constantly overcome with a desire to control over living things. A sort of confused expression of the instability she feels in her own life, whether it be in the face of her parent’s divorce, or her own growing body that she doesn’t quite understand.
Sandy, like the two boys though, knows nothing of sex. She understands that her mother has boyfriends, and that she has desires, but there is little understanding of what it all means. The boys are very much the same, if not more awkward. The openness of their friendship and their curiosity, allows each other to become a playing ground for discovery. In one scene, they all go to the movies together, sitting in the theatre, both boys make a play at Sandy. They slowly put their hands on her knees, working their way up slowly up her thigh, she holds them back, but all three hands intertwine in an orgy of feeling and prodding. They then make a chance at her breasts, slowly feeling and groping, trying not to make noise, she’s exciting and perhaps frightened by the new feelings, and explains as she walks out that she felt so sexy she could faint.
The film slowly escalates, as their desire to touch and be touched increases. After experimenting with some pot, they’re all struck by the desire to watch each other’s hair, and in between the lather, they never fail to take the opportunity to cop a feel, or press themselves against the other.
It’s around this time, that a fourth teen is introduced, one who seems immediately more vulnerable than the others. Her name is Sandy, and superficially, she is not as attractive as the others and she seems a great deal more insecure. As shy as Rhoda is, her loneliness motivates her to make herself the fourth member of their group. They accept her in part because she won’t go away, but also because they take a cruel pleasure in mocking and exploiting her. They accept her only on the condition that she reveals a great secret about her, and in one of the most stirring monologues I’ve ever seen on screen, she recounts her mother’s death by drowning. It seemed impossible, but even they are struck silence by her story, and reveal warmth as Sandy asks to wash her hair, but this is all too short lived.
The film changes it’s focus after this moment, from the three friends to Rhoda’s awkwardness. Suddenly, the exuberance of the three other teens seems far less exciting, as their cruelty and lack of empathy comes forth. They constantly be-little and pressure Rhoda, intimidated by her decisiveness they call her names and make accusations that she’s a prude or stubborn. In truth, it becomes clear that she is wise beyond her years, or at least she is the only one among them that feels for her fellow human being, and unafraid to show doubt and insecurity. Peter actually falls for her, but his fear does not allow him to tell the others, and in their presence he drops all his tenderness in exchange for their acceptance.
The film’s twist towards the middle is shocking at first, but also necessary. The film feels extremely candid, and the characters speak like teens, not how adults think teens talk. The phrasing is often somewhat awkward, there is a level of pretension and repetitiveness… the delivery is rarely sincere, and emotions are masked constantly.
The film’s final scene is both shocking and appropriate. The loss of innocence is not as sweet as it’s often remembered, and this film takes it even one step further than the awkward and unhappy copulations of something like Fast Times at Ridgemont High. There is a surprising amount of violence as animal instincts take full effect.
We are witnessing something beyond childhood, beyond young adulthood… it’s revealing the very nature of human relationships and interactions. These characters however misguided, are rich and beautiful, and we have no doubt they will rise to become both what they hate, and what they deserve. Rhoda hints at this, saying how Dan looks like the type who will get married, have four kids and be in charge of applications at the country club. She looks at Peter, and says his face is un-mapped… he still has the opportunity to change his destiny, to defy what is expected of him. Unfortunately, he can’t resist his animalistic desires, nor his need to be a part of a group. The ending is cruel and bleak, something you’d never expect from the film’s opening scenes.