The Girls of Summer

Amidst the tepid blockbusters, a fresh and exciting take on young love.

click to enlarge SUMMER LOVIN': Mona (Natalie Press, left) and - Tamsin's (Emily Blunt) romance is handled with a light - touch. - Susan Allnut
Susan Allnut
SUMMER LOVIN': Mona (Natalie Press, left) and Tamsin's (Emily Blunt) romance is handled with a light touch.

You can practically smell the endless teenage summer shimmering in that opening music of My Summer of Love, the promise of unknown pleasures, of romance and sex. Those breathy female vocals and rolling waves of reverb seem to have drifted in from an earlier time - with its Sergio Mendes meets Morricone vibe, this could almost be taken for an artifact from the original summer of love - but the music turns out to be by the very much contemporary Goldfrapp, who twist and tweak the sound until it arrives at a new and unexpected place. It's an entirely appropriate soundtrack for a movie where things aren't always what they seem, and where the nostalgia is all about the future.My Summer of Love embraces its familiar elements even as it transcends them, taking a more or less simple tale of young girls in crazy, obsessive love and transforming it into something fresh and strangely exciting. Most of what goes on in the film is seen from behind the pale blue eyes of Mona (Natalie Press), a freckle-faced, ginger-haired Yorkshire lass first glimpsed sprawled out in a field, a blank slate just giving it up to the universe.

Like most 16-year-olds, Mona's just waiting for something to happen. Not exactly content with her lot in life but not exactly resigned to it either, Mona takes things in stride - pretty remarkable considering that her mom has recently died, her lump of a boyfriend's just dumped her, and her ex-con brother has found God and turned the family home into a gathering place for the faithful to come together and talk in tongues.

Enter Tamsin (Emily Blunt), an enigmatic creature who appears out of nowhere on horseback (in a shot milking all that psycho-symbolic hoodoo about girls and horses for all its worth) and seems to offer Mona a way to break on through to the other side. Attraction is instantaneous, with the two young girls seeming to recognize something of themselves in each other, even though the casual observer might guess they come from different planets.

A self-described "bad influence," Tamsin is dark, exotic and a child of privilege, while fair and plain Mona can't quite come up with the scratch to buy a motor for her scooter. Mona lives above a pub called The Swan and drinks beer in the bath; Tamsin lives in a mansion, plays Saint-Saëns' The Swan on the cello, and sips wine while chattering on about Nietzsche and Edith Piaf's "wonderful, tragic life."

It's just that heightened, adolescent love of tragedy, and of romance and danger (particularly in combination), that really galvanizes the girls' bond and nudges them on their way toward a summer filled with extravagantly aimless loitering, gratuitous acts of petty vandalism, and tweaking the easily-tweaked nerves of the local community. And when that first girl-on-girl kiss is exchanged, as we know it will be, it's hard to tell initially if it happens more out of friendship or physical desire or from a basic, subversive urge to do whatever it takes to piss off the rest of the world. Where the kiss leads, though, at least for a while, is to that place of dreamy and thoroughly unambiguous love suggested by the movie's title.

Even if that exhilarating account of love's first rush was all My Summer of Love had going for it, the film would still be worth a look, but that turns out to be just the starting point. My Summer of Love accrues complexity, turning progressively darker and more discomfiting as it moves away from the sun-dappled fields and rolling hills of the English countryside and deeper into the girls' private world of games and role-playing, activities that flourish largely within the shuttered, no-grown-ups-allowed sanctuary of Tamsin's family estate.

We're reminded a bit here of what happens in Heavenly Creatures or Bertolucci's The Dreamers (itself a re-imagined Last Tango in Paris), where the focus gravitates inexorably from the outside world to the isolated interior of its characters, even as the movie assumes the deliriously subjective p.o.v. of players losing control of their games.

Ultimately, though, Mona and Tamsin's boundary-pushing theatrics and games are uniquely their own - a series of blood oaths, séances, strange psychedelic trips and quasi-erotic flirtations with death that end in a way that surprises everyone. And don't assume that means it all ends badly for everyone, either; at least one character walks away with a smile, albeit a smile as inscrutable as it is tantalizing.

My Summer of Love feels like a love story on its most immediate levels, and an amazingly sweet one at that, but dig just a bit under the surface and you'll find something tougher and much more cunning. This is a movie eager to root around in the push-pull between reality and fantasy, to provoke us with opposites that bleed into and feed off one another. The characters happily embrace their conflicting emotions, secrets and lies, and for each burst of light there is darkness, for every semblance of faith (like the one espoused by Mona's born-again bro') there is a snot-nose Nietzschian nihilism (as in what the girls periodically preach and practice).

My Summer of Love swings between these poles with as keen a grasp of illusion as a dancer at Mons Venus, nimbly moving from dreamy naturalism to high-drama fantasy until the lines become a delicious blur. In the end, the film becomes considerably more than the sum of its parts by cleverly playing those various layers of ambiguity off one another.

That much of this is handled with a disarmingly light touch and some wonderfully cheeky humor is only part of why My Summer of Love succeeds so well. Aided and abetted by some richly nuanced performances (particularly from Press) and meticulously shaped direction by Pawel Pawlikowski (possessor of filmdom's most mellifluous moniker since Aki Kaurismaki), this is an awfully nice little surprise for those of us struggling through a real-live summer of one dead-in-the-water blockbuster after another.

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