Review: Best Summer Ever | SXSW 2021

Score: C+

Directors: Michael Parks Randa, Lauren Smitelli

Cast: Shannon DeVido, Rickey Alexander Wilson, Madeline Rhodes, Bradford Haynes

Running Time: 72 Minutes

Rated: NR

Best Summer Ever wears its heart on its sleeve. It's hopelessly devoted to Grease, including casting 30-year-olds as teenagers. It's a bright, sunny musical, featuring numerous disabled actors. On paper, it's sounds refreshing and fun. In execution, it doesn't quite get there.

Its crucial misstep is in trying to be as corny as High School Musical but as hip as Booksmart. There are hints of sex and drugs and even some bad words, but the story is so smothered in cheese that these quasi-adult elements stick out like a sore thumb.

Rickey Alexander Wilson and Shannon DeVido are absolutely charming as the main couple. Tony has the typical jock physique and like Troy Bolton before him, is a star athlete hiding a passion for the arts. Sage is the tough, independent object of his affection. They profess their love on the last day of dance camp, both expecting to not see each other for months. But of course, fate brings them together and they end up attending the same high school in a backwoods town that is so progressive and inclusive as to be a complete fantasy.

Madeline Rhodes plays mean girl Beth, whose soul motivation is to be crowned homecoming queen, with Tony as king. Her scheme starts by sowing the standard relationship doubts, then escalates to trying to send Sage's moms to prison for drug trafficking. (No, seriously.) Teaming up for a counter-campaign with Tony's on-the-field rival would have been a lot easier.

It's easy to cheer for this film, but it's hard to recommend. If its songs were catchier or its dance numbers spectacular, it would be easy. Directors Michael Parks Randa and Lauren Smitelli don't have the chops of Herbert Ross (Footloose), Kenny Ortega (High School Musical) or Jon M. Chu (the Step Up sequels). If there were actual audiences at this year's festival, they would probably be tapping their toes, but no one would be humming a tunes after the screening.

But they did make this film radically inclusive, doing right by its numerous disabled actors. They gave them parts where their disability is not the focus of the story, and no one mocks them for being different. That alone makes it worth praising. Best Summer Ever could get by on a weak script if the musical elements were top-notch. But since they're just so-so, it would be more appropriate to call it Totally Average Summer.


About Kip Mooney

Kip Mooney
Like many film critics born during and after the 1980s, my hero is Roger Ebert. The man was already the best critic in the nation when he won the Pulitzer in 1975, but his indomitable spirit during and after his recent battle with cancer keeps me coming back to read not only his reviews but his insightful commentary on the everyday. But enough about a guy you know a lot about. I knew I was going to be a film critic—some would say a snob—in middle school, when I had to voraciously defend my position that The Royal Tenenbaums was only a million times better than Adam Sandler’s remake of Mr. Deeds. From then on, I would seek out Wes Anderson’s films and avoid Sandler’s like the plague. Still, I like to think of myself as a populist, and I’ll be just as likely to see the next superhero movie as the next Sundance sensation. The thing I most deplore in a movie is laziness. I’d much rather see movies with big ambitions try and fail than movies with no ambitions succeed at simply existing. I’m also a big advocate of fun-bad movies like The Room and most of Nicolas Cage’s work. In the past, I’ve written for The Dallas Morning News and the North Texas Daily, which I edited for a semester. I also contributed to Dallas-based Pegasus News, which in the circle of life, is now part of The Dallas Morning News, where I got my big break in 2007. Eventually, I’d love to write and talk about film full-time, but until that’s a viable career option, I work as an auditor for Wells Fargo. I hope to one day meet my hero, go to the Toronto International Film Festival, and compete on Jeopardy. Until then, I’m excited to share my love of film with you.