Nothing exemplifies a coming-of-age story quite like a good old-fashioned road trip. Freshly graduated from high-school and looking for some adventure, three friends embark on a cross-country pilgrimage to the Summerland music festival. Less romantic are the lies and emotional baggage they’ve got stored in the overhead bins, all of which inevitably come tumbling out when they hit a few potholes. Shot on a shoestring budget with a skeleton crew, SUMMERLAND is impressively polished for such a modest production. It’s just a shame that as much attention wasn’t paid to the script.
“You’re a piece of shit, Bray.” It may not exactly be Shakespeare, but this line, spoken midway through the film, does a pretty good job of summing up its main protagonist. Bray (Chris Ball) might initially sound like a typical coming-of-age character, going on a road trip to meet his crush for the first time, but there’s a catch. He’s catfishing an ostensibly heterosexual guy (though Bray insists that he really is gay), using pictures of his best friend’s girlfriend as straight bait.
In case all that isn’t problematic enough (it is), said best friend and imparter of the above wisdom, Oliver (Rory J. Saper), is no picnic himself. While portrayed with charm and stoner humour by Saper, this idiot Brit abroad somehow manages to be worse than his catfishing pal. Aside from knowing about Bray’s scheme and doing nothing, Oliver neglects to tell long-term girlfriend Stacey (Maddie Phillips) that his visa has expired, leaving her to obliviously plan their future together. Then, seemingly feeling guilty over his dishonesty, he steals Stacey’s credit card and drops over $1,000 on a hotel suite in Las Vegas. And a Queen’s Guard uniform for some reason.
Lucky girl that she is, Stacey gets the least attention in the film. Aside from Oliver pressuring her to steal her parents’ RV for the trip (made necessary by Oliver being caught smoking weed behind the wheel and losing his car), she doesn’t have much depth, and mostly serves as a plot device for the boys’ stories. To her credit, Phillips easily makes Stacey the most likeable character, with her energy and sincerity only serving to further highlight what terrible people she is travelling with.
Acting as a literal and figurative vehicle for this story, the RV also served as a production office for the crew of six as they made their way through six US states and two Canadian provinces. The directing duo, Lankyboy (Kurtis David Harder and Noah Kentis), manage to capture some impressive visuals with their limited equipment, with highlights including a shroom trip in the woods that culminates in waterfall cliff diving, and a high-speed inter-RV drug deal on a desert highway.
The climax, both narratively and visually, is the festival: Summerland. Shot on location at the Joshua Tree Music Festival, all the background activity lends a great sense of authenticity to the scenes, as the boys finally confront the consequences of their actions. Stacey, partying alone, runs into Bray’s crush Shawn (Dylan Playfair), who kisses her, thinking that he had been texting her all this time.
Oliver sees the kiss and storms off, while Bray finally comes clean to Shawn, who punches him for the deceit. It’s a testament to the indifference shown to Stacey that she never gets to confront either of her friends for their behaviours, despite them affecting her much more than anybody else.
Though Oliver slightly develops as a person, ending the film alone and happy for Stacey moving on, the writing team (Harder, Ball, Kentis, Dylan Griffiths, Tesh Guttikonda and Taylor Pedersen) neglect to do the same for Bray. Visiting his partner in toxicity back in London, Bray announces to Oliver that Shawn has added him on Facebook, once again insisting that this means he is secretly gay.
Weighed down by empty characters with arcs as flat as the road they drive on, SUMMERLAND is still an impressive feat, created by passionate, dedicated people. The work put in by the small crew with barely any budget shows the ingenuity that beats at the heart of independent cinema. Unfortunately, technical craft isn’t everything and, taken as a whole package, SUMMERLAND winds up feeling more like Fyre Festival than Coachella.