In honor of another summer winding down, this week’s question comes from reader Jacob Daniel Debrock:
I would like to pose the question of: What is your favorite summer movie? What is the film that somehow captures all of the aspects that make the mood of summer and put it on celluloid?
My summers never turned out like Baby’s in Dirty Dancing. There were no Catskills resorts, dramatic romances, or coordinated dance routines. But to me it’s the perfect summer movie. Why? Because Baby lives out a dream a lot of us have during the season. Not hooking up with Swayze, necessarily—though I’m sure plenty of people have fantasized about that. No, she finds something that frees her from the monotony of her daily life. Plus, it’s full of sweaty bodies writhing, and Baby’s leotard-jorts-Keds combo is an enviable summer look.
Dazed And Confused. It’s the look of the sunset, the little freedoms the main characters luxuriate in on the last day of school and the first night of summer. It’s a celebratory movie, but not one that gazes at high school or the past through rose-colored pot smoke: Melancholy hangs at the edges of the film, in characters who don’t know what’s waiting for them around the bend of the next school year, or in the unacknowledged, unknown disappointments that have been visited upon the character who’s most famously not in high school. Dazed And Confused depicts the dawning of a season, but it reminds me more of the way I used to feel at the end of the summer, driving around my hometown at sundown with the stereo turned up. The keg is cashed, the party ends, real life (in the form of various authority figures) is breathing down your neck—but the car keeps rolling on down the road. (Did I mention that I don’t like summer all that much?)
My mind immediately goes to American Graffiti, which is about the end of summer and, by extension, the end of youth. I hated school as a kid, so summer vacation and Christmas were the only two times of the year I really enjoyed. There was nothing more melancholy to me than the end of summer vacation. There’s something very bittersweet about watching these small-town kids try to wring every last drop of enjoyment out of the season. They have no idea what’s about to hit them. They may not even be able to find Vietnam on a map yet. The scene that really gets me is when Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) talks privately to English teacher Mr. Wolfe (Terry McGovern), who tried and failed to escape his hometown. And the whole movie ends with The Beach Boys’ “All Summer Long,” which is practically a eulogy for summer. “Won’t be long till summertime is through.” That’s the truth.
Perhaps I am too obvious in my summer movie preferences, but not a single July passes where I don’t rewatch Wet Hot American Summer. I never went to summer camp as a kid, so I choose to believe real-life sleepaway camp is exactly like everything depicted in Wet Hot American Summer—right down to the talking vegetable can. In fact, if my parents had sent me to camp as a kid and Janeane Garofalo hadn’t been there to greet me, I would have insisted we get back in the car and leave immediately. In all seriousness, it’s easy to escape the harsh, hot realities of summer in a comedy this delirious and weird. To me, it’s the cinematic version of a Rocket Pop.
I spent my childhood school vacations paddling about in the cold Atlantic waters of various beach communities, so the lurking terrors of Jaws hit me with extra force when it came out. It’s cliché to say that Steven Spielberg’s horror-adventure classic scared you right out of the water, but the concept that there were monsters lurking at the innocent-looking beaches I’d been heedlessly flopping around in my whole young life did just that. (Decades later, I’m still an embarrassingly wary beachgoer.) It’s Spielberg’s feel for the mundane, sandy, sunburned summer-town milieu that grounds his tale of torpid vacation fun torn to shreds by toothy, undetectable (until it’s too late) horror. As inexhaustibly entertaining as Jaws is all these years later, the young Spielberg’s virtuosity has lent all my beach summers since an undertone of gnawing, cello-scored menace. Thanks a boatload, Steve.
Did you know that people can get seasonal affective disorder in summer, not just winter? As a kid (and, okay, an adult), my summertime sadness often crept up as a result of the structure of school dissolving in June. Oh, and just from being a 13-year-old girl. While not necessarily a summer work—much of the film takes place in school—no movie better captures that heavy summer melancholy than The Virgin Suicides. After the Lisbon sisters are shut up in their Midwestern home by their worried parents, they suffer an airless (not Airless) isolation that feels particularly of summer: There’s something about their listless, dreamy wistfulness, and director Sofia Coppola’s creamy-yellow palette (it doesn’t hurt that all the girls have blond hair). Crickets hum as heartthrob Trip Fontaine (Josh Hartnett) leaves the Lisbon house one night, and when he’s not courting sister Lux (Kirsten Dunst), he’s floating dreamily in a pool. Don’t get me wrong, I love all those celebratory, school’s-out summer movies, but the Virgin Suicides’ deep longing—lustful and otherwise—for me epitomizes the hottest, heaviest season.
Given that it released on May 7, seventh grade probably wasn’t quite out when my 13-year-old buddies Bryan and John and I piled into a local theater for a screening of Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element. But The Fifth Element practically is summer for me: loud, exciting, breathless, stupid, and sexy. (I’m reasonably sure the few background glimpses the movie offers of a topless Milla Jovovich were the first actual female nudity I’d ever seen.) And, like summer, it was also a little disappointing: My feelings on The Fifth Element will always be affected by that first viewing, when the film ripped during the big “activate the pillars” sequence at the end, leaving me and my friends sitting there for like 10 minutes, wondering what the fifth element could possibly be. (It was love, by the way.) That’s summer, too: a lot of shouting and nonsense, and then it’s over sooner than you expect, or want.
I can’t believe that no one has mentioned it yet, because for me nothing evokes the oppressively heavy atmosphere that hangs over summer in any major city better than Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing. When the temperatures get into the 90s and the heat starts radiating off of the sidewalks in ripping waves, walking up three flights of stairs becomes an exhausting task, and if you don’t have air conditioning—as none of the poor Bed-Stuy residents in the movie do—going inside provides little relief. So everybody takes to the streets, and that many sweaty bodies together in close proximity to one another always leads to tension. Do The Right Thing takes place in Brooklyn, but summertime tends to be volatile here in Chicago too, where as the temperature rises, so does the murder rate.
There are plenty of movies that evoke the feelings and textures of summer, especially the end of summer… but I’m not going to talk about any of those (I’ve written enough about Superbad and The Myth Of The American Sleepover, anyway). For me, so many memories of summer are tied up in summer moviegoing, which makes a widely disliked movie like Wild Wild West feel as summery as any number of vastly better movies. In our younger days, my best friends and I used to make sing-along mixtapes for the half-hour drive we took to the “good” mall outside of Albany to see the biggest summer blockbusters. I’m not sure if Wild Wild West was the worst movie to receive this designation (in fact, I’m almost certain it wasn’t), but that it did certainly evokes summer’s mix of joy and aimlessness. I mean, is there another circumstance beyond the summer season where we would’ve gotten all hyped up to see Wild Wild West? Is there another set of conditions where I’d actually maintain a kind of fondness for Barry Sonnenfeld’s misbegotten action-comedy? Regardless, it happened, and now I kind of love Will Smith’s stupid “Wild Wild West” theme song. Such is the magic of summer’s apparently low standards.
When I was a kid, my family and I would visit roller-coaster mecca Cedar Point for a few days every summer. I tended to prefer the games and food options to rides (I was a nervous child, what can I say?), but the annual vacations instilled in me a romantic view of amusement parks that’s never left me. That’s probably why Adventureland embodies summer to me. Because the movie was filmed at an actual park (the legendary, Pittsburgh-based Kennywood) and is set in 1987, the film’s details feel authentic to my fond childhood remembrances: impossible-to-win carnival games, jaded employees, sorta-unsafe rides and decor. More than that, however, Adventureland acutely captures how ephemeral summer always feels to me—the sense that any idyllic, carefree times (and warm weather) are merely temporary suspensions of responsibility, because real life will no doubt intrude once August ends. Come to think of it, maybe it’s more correct to say I identify with the movie’s existential dread most of all…
I was torn between two Jeff Lieberman movies here, but since the characters in Squirm get sweatier than the ones in Just Before Dawn, I’m going with the former. Squirm puts a couple of horny teenagers and Deep South small-town hicks at the mercy of “an avalanche of killer worms… writhing across the land in a tidal wave of terror!” Lieberman has a special kind of condescending affection for his characters’ would-be summer vacation plans that for me elicits a delightful mix of nostalgic yearning and embarrassed self-identification. I too once drove from NYC to Texas to spend the summer with my girlfriend, only to have things go terrifyingly wrong. Admittedly, I found myself at the mercy of asshole mechanics at a truck stop in Arkansas instead of flesh-eating mutant worms. But creepy crawlies aside, the sinking sensation of horror I felt when I got on the highway to discover my brakes no longer worked is reproduced perfectly in Squirm. And now every year, when the sun starts shining and the days get longer, I always remind myself: Be careful out there.
You can’t even get through the trailer for Now And Then without hearing the word “summer” multiple times, and that’s totally fitting. Following four girls in the summer of 1970, a summer when “everything started to change,” Now And Then is the perfect flashback movie, allowing viewers to reminisce about the freedom that comes with the summers of their youth. Played initially by Gaby Hoffmann, Christina Ricci, Ashleigh Aston Moore, and Thora Birch, we later see the four main characters grown up as Demi Moore, Rosie O’Donnell, Rita Wilson, and Melanie Griffith, respectively, as they wax nostalgic about silly things like games of Red Rover to the more serious topic of divorce. Throw in some killer tunes like Vanity Fare’s “Hitchin’ A Ride” and this feel-good coming-of-age movie reminds you that summertime is the best time, whether you’re a child or an adult.
There are a lot of movies about summer, but very few of them acknowledge a hard truth: that the season can be kind of boring and miserable, if you don’t have money, air-conditioning, and/or anything to do with your time. That’s one of the reasons I like Tu Dors Nicole
so much. This French-Canadian dramedy concerns a young woman caught in the post-collegiate dead zone, with no real plans or prospects, just a shitty dead-end job in a nowhere town, a crush that probably doesn’t share her feelings, and a best friend she’s gradually losing. That’s all common coming-of-age material, but the film is especially vivid in capturing the slow-motion, almost melancholy atmosphere of the dog days—that nagging sense that you’re wasting what should be the most fun time of the year. Maybe I’ve done too many summers wrong, because Tu Dors Nicole really speaks to that part of me that secretly can’t wait for the swim trunks to go back in storage and the leaves to start changing colors again.
Maybe it’s because the last completely free summer I had was when I was 12, but nothing brings the season to mind quite like The Sandlot. I spent my grade- and middle-school summers playing 16-inch softball with a team thrown as haphazardly together as the one that Smalls (Tom Guiry) joins. We didn’t have a Great Hambino, but we did have that one standout player who made the rest of us look competent. And just like the sandlot gang took its hijinks off the field, we also got into a little harmless trouble after practice. We even won over a neighbor’s dog, but we never did meet any reclusive baseball players.
With its brutal 8 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, Summer Catch is probably a horrible movie. As a tween, though, I loved it for portraying an essential part of my Massachusetts summers: the Cape Cod Baseball League. Cape baseball is low-key for the crowd and high-stakes for players, as the league is a breeding ground for the MLB. Summer Catch sort of manages to capture both sides of the game, even though it wasn’t shot on Cape Cod and is barely reverent to the sport. Freddie Prinze Jr.’s pitcher has major-league ambitions, while Matthew Lillard and Wilmer Valderrama goof around and get laid. Sure, the movie is a pretty empty rom-com with dumb, fratty humor, and yes, the title is barely a pun (Jessica Biel is Prinze’s summer catch). It’s a nothing movie, but nothing movies can evoke the ease of summer. All that said, I haven’t seen Summer Catch since I was 12, and I’m going to keep it that way in case it’s even worse than I remember it.
Will’s not wrong that even the most ridiculous movie, if seen at the appropriate young age, can forever become linked with the summer season in your mind. And for me, that film is Midnight Madness, a little-seen and little-loved 1980 adventure comedy that doubles as the cinematic debut of Michael J. Fox. The film is pure goofball hokum: Five college kids are selected to participate in an all-night scavenger hunt, organized by an oddball savant with a penchant for riddles and elaborate setups. It’s a freewheeling and messy fusion of It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and Fox’s subsequent Poison Ivy, as each band of contestants—the jocks, the nerds, the women (needless to say, the film is politically retrograde in all the usual ways)—compete with youthful vulgarity and ardor alike. From the roller-skating to the period attire, it’s implanted on my brain thanks to dozens of viewings every summer from ages 8 to 12. I have no idea how it holds up, but I’m happy to reenact the whole thing verbatim for anyone within earshot, at any moment.