Friday 5 February 2021

SUMMER OF '72 review

In 1972 Tuscaloosa, layabout slacker Billy (Devon Bostick) wants to spend his summer mowing lawns for a quick buck, avoiding Vietnam and hanging out with Virginia (Natalia Dyer), the wild new patient at the asylum his psychiatrist father runs. Billy's childhood best friend Nigel (Marchant Davis) runs the local BBQ shack under the watchful eye of law enforcement, simply for him being black. As Billy and Virginia's romance develops and the status of her mental health is increasingly erratic, Nigel starts to fight back against the police oppression as cracks begin to appear in his and Billy's friendship.

Based on the novel by Glasgow Phillips and released in the States under the original title of Tuscaloosa, Summer of '72 (there must now be enough Summer of ... films to populate the last century) begins with vintage '60s news reports of Governor George Wallace, who showed his dissatisfaction with the desegregation of the University of Alabama by infamously 'standing in the schoolhouse door' to block new students of colour from entering, and was the victim of a failed assassination attempt when he ran for the Democratic primary in 1972. Although this footage don't have a direct correlation with the plot of this film, it's an effective shorthand to give an idea of what sort of prejudice the Black citizens of Alabama were having to live under from some of the highest people in elected office. The correlations with modern day are pretty clear from the outset.

With his unkempt hair, sunglasses and ready supply of reefer, Billy has no idea what a charmed life he's lived so far, even with the tragic death of his mother years earlier that haunts him. The son of a successful doctor (Tate Donovan) he lies around aimlessly, doing odd jobs to keep his father off his back. This changes when Virginia - a quintessential Manic Pixie Dream Girl if ever there was one - appears on the scene to shake up his life a bit. A new patient at his father's asylum, admitted by her own father for her wild "nymphomaniac" ways, Billy is immediately drawn to the chaos she offers, even if he doesn't know if she truly lives up to the lunatic label they've given her. Responding to her pleas to get her out of there, Billy takes her fishing and to meet his best friend Nigel, and enjoys one of those 'driving with the roof down, wind blowing in your hair, making out in a field' kind of romances that's the stuff of teenage dreams and that you only see in movies. Things aren't as easy for Nigel, who has to contend with law enforcement driving by his business to intimidate him, something that doesn't sit well with his Black Panther friend Antoine (hip-hop artist YG) who plans to retaliate by attacking the station house.

Filmed in 2017, released in the US in March last year, and now reaching these shores after the death of George Floyd and the ensuing Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, there's elements of Nigel's arc in Summer of '72 that feel incredibly timely. Tired of the threat of police brutality and facing up to how much an ally his white friend Billy can really be if he's blind to the struggles Nigel has had to face all his life (his mother being Billy's maid, as well as his mother's best friend), he starts to follow the guidance of Antoine that, "if he's not part of the solution, he's part of the problem", cutting Billy out of his life. It's an interesting plot thread, and coupled with the earlier footage of Alabama history would make for a compelling narrative with Nigel as the lead, but his friendship with Billy and increasingly volatile reaction to law enforcement is very much the 'B' story of the film, taking a back seat to the love story between Billy and Virginia.

As the free-spirited Virginia, Dyer (best known for Netflix's Stranger Things, but also in last year's surprisingly subversive Catholic high school comedy, Yes, God, Yes), has got a touch of True Romance's Alabama Worley about her with her charming but unpredictable, free-spirited ways; and although Summer of '72 never ventures too far down a Bonnie & Clyde/Badlands route, it's clear as it progresses that it wants to hit some of those 'young couple on the run' sub-genre tropes along the way, with some lovely sun-drenched scenes, a good attention to period detail and a rather sweet love story, even as Billy becomes concerned about Virginia's mental state.

There's a sense that they've missed a trick in not paying more attention to Nigel's story, instead focusing on the white couple and treating the palpable racial tensions as a mere backdrop to their romance (oh, to be young, in love and clueless of the world around you), meaning that when the threads do interweave, they don't always gel too easily. There's solid support from Tate Donovan as the well respected doctor, hiding his darker side and association with the Sheriff's department from his son, and some fine performances at its core from Bostick, Dyer and Davis. Those expecting a history lesson on Alabama's race relations may feel short changed, but if you want an sweet teenage romance with a little edge, Summer of '72 provides it.



Signature Entertainment presents Summer of ‘72 on Digital Platforms 1st February, and is available on Amazon and iTunes.

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