Whether you’ve managed to briefly get away from home or remained in a state of semi-lockdown, nobody has had exactly the summer they planned in 2020. And while we can all bemoan things we’ve missed out on in this lost season, it’s hard not to feel most for the young: summer, after all, is when kids are supposed to discover themselves and each other in an environment of balmy, untrammelled freedom.
Pending the return of that, there are plenty of coming-of-age movies out there to remind us what a youthful summer is supposed to be like. With little fanfare, Netflix is premiering one of the best recent ones this week. Rebecca Zlotowski’s lovely An Easy Girl (2019) sees the talented French film-maker rallying from the disappointment of her murky Natalie Portman-starring misfire The Summoning and returning breezily to basics. A softly sensuous mood piece, positively drenched in twinkly Côte d’Azur sunlight, it follows working-class 16-year-old Naïma (Mina Farid, a winning newcomer) as she spends a Cannes summer vacation in thrall to her older, richer, impossibly glamorous cousin Sofia (Zahia Dehar).
This isn’t a glossy wish-fulfilment exercise, as complexities of sexuality, misogyny and class tension drift into our wide-eyed heroine’s idyllic setup. Zlotowski gives her film a keen moral conscience, testing Naïma’s preconceptions of what adult liberation really involves, but that doesn’t impede the film’s ripe, sunburned appreciation of beachy, bodily pleasure. It feels like a 90-minute holiday in itself.
The French have form in this genre: over at Mubi, you can find Catherine Corsini’s sweet, earthy Summertime (2015), a rural lesbian romance that also carries an aching autumnal undertow of regret. And Céline Sciamma’s Tomboy (2011) remains my favourite in her formidable filmography, deftly turning the summer’s possibilities for unrestricted self-reinvention toward a compassionate, deeply perceptive study of gender identity. As a 10-year-old girl who experiments with presenting as a boy to new friends over the course of a summer, Zoé Héran gives one of the most astonishing performances by a child in all cinema. Hasten to Amazon Prime or the Mubi Library if you’ve never seen it.
Françoise Sagan’s 1954 novel Bonjour Tristesse, of course, represents the ultimate in sun-streaked, Gallic coming-of-age melancholy, though Hollywood beat the French to filming it. Otto Preminger’s 1958 film (available on YouTube) doesn’t quite capture the novel’s pain, but it is so peachily gorgeous, and young Jean Seberg so exquisitely ingenuous as its tragic young heroine, that it’s irresistible all the same. Americans, blessed as they are with impossibly endless summer holidays, know this genre inside out, and it’s yielded any number of perennially repeated audience favourites, from the bubblegum joys of 1987’s Dirty Dancing (on iTunes) to the more solemn boy’s own journey of Stand By Me (1986; via the Microsoft Store) to the doll’s house adorability of Wes Anderson’s pre-teen runaway romp Moonrise Kingdom (2012; on YouTube).
Back in the 1970s, Summer of ’42 (on Amazon) was a vastly popular weepie, the sentimental appeal of its seasonal romance between a teenage boy and a young war bride amplified by Michel Legrand’s swooning, Oscar-winning score. You hear little talk of it these days, but it’s a sumptuous relic. Director Robert Mulligan revisited the genre to winsome effect in the 1990s: with its painful adolescent lessons learned over the course of a sweltering midcentury Louisiana summer, The Man in the Moon (Amazon, again) is familiar stuff, but memorable for an absolute heartbreaker of a debut performance by a 15-year-old Reese Witherspoon.
If you prefer your deep south summers a little less dewy, Kasi Lemmons’s marvellous Eve’s Bayou (1997; on YouTube) is the modern classic to seek out, with its piquant evocation of messy adult relationships and strong black community through a 10-year-old’s impressionable eyes. Spike Lee’s ever-underrated Crooklyn (1994; on Google Play) is one of his most affecting films, a study of fractious family life in his favoured Bedford-Stuyvesant neighbourhood, against the backdrop of one sticky-hot summer.
Brooklyn likewise forms a tough, moody backdrop to Eliza Hittman’s Beach Rats (on Netflix), in which the jobless, shapeless sprawl of the season encourages a possibly closeted teenager into anxious sexual experimentation. It was released at the same time as Call Me By Your Name (2017; on Amazon), in which a 17-year-old has a rather more halcyon gay awakening under the Italian sun, channelling the swooning first love experienced in Florence by Englishwoman abroad Lucy Honeychurch in Merchant-Ivory’s rapturous 1985 A Room With a View (Google Play). If you’re feeling holiday envy, these films won’t exactly cure it, but you can bask in their residual glow.
Also new on streaming and DVD
(Curzon Home Cinema)
Critics were divided on the Dardenne brothers’ new film at Cannes last year, though they still won a best director prize. It’s a poised, intelligent study of a 13-year-old Muslim boy drawn into extremism, but it lacks the social conviction of their best work.
Locarno film festival 2020
(via their website)
The avant-garde Swiss film festival would normally be unrolling its full physical edition this week, but has assembled an impressive on-demand programme, including an international selection of new shorts and past festival classics from the likes of Michael Haneke, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Edward Yang.
Story of a Love Affair
(Cult Films, PG)
Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1950 debut film has been beautifully restored for Blu-ray and digital download. A strikingly modernist blend of James M Cain-style noir and Italian neorealism, it’s more tautly disciplined than many of the director’s later works.
Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure
This bodacious teen fantasy was already dated the second it premiered in 1989, but that was always its charm: now, it’s an entirely loopy time capsule, given a 4K restoration ahead of this year’s long-belated new sequel.