Sunday, March 18, 2012
"Last Summer" is a terrific coming-of-age drama from 1969 about the dynamic of a quartet of teens.
The director is Frank Perry, whose small yet intriguing filmography includes 1962's "David and Lisa," which deals with problems that confine the teens to a mental institution, "Last Summer's" teens are more freewheeling yet no less troubled.
"Last Summer" opens with Peter (Richard Thomas) and Dan (Bruce Davison) wandering by themselves along an Eastern seaboard beach carrying a radio under the hot sun. They come upon the beautiful Sandy (Barbara Hershey), who is trying to save an injured seagull. They think she's hot, but she's more interested in enlisting their help. The three save the bird and become fast friends.
Beer becomes their truth serum. Peter and Dan want to bed Sandy, and she teases them with her sexuality. Sandy knows she holds the power and becomes a ringleader to these two willing followers. Her ever-present bikini becomes one of her most powerful weapons, and she enjoys keeping Peter and Dan keenly interested without giving in to them.
One afternoon on the beach with the seagull, the three are approached by Rhoda (Catherine Burns), who assumes they are hurting the bird. They ridicule her and send her off, but Rhoda returns again. She's the opposite of Sandy - not a beauty, with braces and a frumpy swimming suit. But while Sandy boasts of her high IQ, it's Rhoda who's the smart one. The three allow Rhoda to stay although at times verbally abuse her.
I like how there are few others around in "Last Summer." It reminded me of "Lord of the Flies" and how a hierarchy evolves without adults present. It's as if these four are on their own island, trying to act like adults but not fully comprehending the consequences of their decisions. At one point Dan says "We're not kids here," but they aren't yet adults, either.
Unfortunately, their parents are not the best role models. Sandy's divorced mother is sleeping with a man who once fondled Sandy; Dan's parents smoke marijuana and party and do a poor job of hiding this from their son; and Peter's parents fight so much that he just wants to get away from them.
Rhoda replaces the seagull as a project for the other three. But the level-headed Rhoda brings an unsettling reality to this group, and Sandy in particular feels threatened, especially when Peter begins to show a protective interest in Rhoda. However, Rhoda's weakness is a need to belong, and Sandy uses this to her advantage, leading to a shockingly cruel climax.
Perry clearly can tap into the emotions facing teens, starting with "David and Lisa." At that time, it was independent films or the British new wave that treated teens seriously while studios equated teens and summertime to bubble-headed beach films. But moviemaking changed so much that by the late 1960s, "Last Summer's" emotional openness was more in line with a new wave of storytelling, from "Midnight Cowboy" to "Easy Rider."
The actors are amazing. This was Davison's and Burns' first big-screen film, and it was one of the first for Thomas and Hershey. Burns earned a well-deserved Oscar nomination for her efforts.
"Last Summer" surprised me with its emotional impact. While it may not be as shocking as it must have been in 1969, the story still feels fresh. Director Perry (who also made "Diary of a Mad Housewife" and "Mommie Dearest") and screenwriter Eleanor Perry (Frank's first wife), adapting from Evan Hunter's novel, deserve credit for giving 1960s teens something beyond endless beach parties.