Friday 22 September 2017

"Something Like Summer": Movie review

In 2011, American author Jay Bell released the first novel in what subsequently became a self-published phenomenon, winning fans across the world. Something Like Summer, covering twelve years in the life of Texan high school student Benjamin Bentley, has to date spawned seven sequels and two collections of short stories. (An eighth and final instalment is due later this year.) The latter five novels cover other characters who emerged in the course of Bell’s narrative, while the first three books in the Something Like series focus on Benjamin and the two men in his life – his high school sweetheart, Tim Wyman, and his adult boyfriend, Jace Holden – with Benjamin dodging making a decision like it’s his national sport.

This love triangle resulted in a Twilight-esque division of Team Jace versus Team Tim among book readers, with the notable exception of Jay Bell himself, who has maintained an admirable neutrality in the ensuing Twitter fracas. At this point, for full disclosure, it is incumbent upon me to confess that I chose a team faster than anyone since Marie-Antoinette was asked which side she was rooting for during the French Revolution. Picking Jace is, for me, the kind of spiritual seppuku comparable to saying you’d actually want to be sorted into Hufflepuff. Even as Tim (Ravenclaw, with the occasional errant Slytherin oopsy) merrily tobogganed down the morality slopes in his pursuit to win Benjamin, I continued to cheer him on.

Page-bound civil wars aside, Something Like Summer has now been turned into a movie, adapted by one of its producers, Carlos Pedraza, and currently gathering momentum and garnering applause on the festival circuit in the US. Last week, I had the joy of attending its New England premier at the gorgeous Hanover Theatre in Worcester, Massachusetts. 

One of the great strengths of Bell’s writing is his ability to convey both what we intend through the minutiae of our mannerisms and how that can be misinterpreted. This is particularly obvious in a game of comparisons between Something Like Summer and Something Like Winter, which respectively cover some of the same events from Benjamin’s point of view and Tim’s. Capturing those nuances and the twists within turns of a decade-long love affair were always going to be easier on page than screen. So, it says much for Pedraza’s acumen that he uses musical bridges to convey some of the long-term developments, while also retaining the most memorable moments from the book. (One scene, in which Tim watches Benjamin perform on stage, was like being hit in the gut by the pain all-but bleeding out of Tim’s eyes.) To slim-line the narrative, Pedraza also merges several characters and alters others. In the books, Tim’s girlfriend Krista (played here by Madisyn Lane) is a bob-cut-sporting blonde with the charisma of a cactus. Simpering and irredeemably stupid, Krista is firmly under the thumb of the school’s queen bee and resident fascist with a flip-phone, Stacey Shelley. (Who I thoroughly enjoyed, but that's probably something to bring up with a therapist.) In the movie, Stacey is missing and some of her cutting cruelty is given to Krista. It works, as does the rolling of three characters into the form of the broken yet cruel Bryce (Tristan Decker).

Tim (Davi Santos), Krista (Madisyn Lane) and Bryce (Tristan Decker)

Something also has to be said, in general, for this movie’s casting. Bell’s stories, and his fans, pay a great deal of attention to the physical appearance of the characters. And, here, the three principals are eerily similar to their descriptions in the book. Newcomer Grant Davis as Benjamin nailed the aesthetic, presence, and mannerisms of the lead, particularly in the first half of the movie and it was admirably clear that he had made full use of Bell’s canon in his research. For me personally, some of the later scenes – particularly one in the hospital – perhaps lacked the full emotional punch they had in the books, but you would have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by the sleeve-grabbing of a magnificent Ben Baur as Jace. I know, I know. I’m aware Team Jace will land on me for implying elsewhere that their hero is the personality equivalent of an Advil PM, but even I have to bend the knee to Baur’s superb performance. For one brief and all-too-horrible moment, I wobbled in my entrenched views on Jace the Sky High Snoozefest - and that is a tribute to Baur’s thoughtful, elegant presence.

The supporting cast are generally a treat – Will Shepherd has a great cameo as a student teacher, and Jana Lee Hamblin, Riley Stewart, and Ron Boyd are great as Benjamin’s on-screen family. Pride of place has to go to Ajiona Alexus (right) as his best friend, Allison. Alexus, who has appeared in Empire and as Sheri Holland in the Netflix hit 13 Reasons Why, captures all of Allison’s ferocious intelligence and tenacious loyalty. Allison’s Khaleesi-is-coming-to-Westeros approach to solving Benjamin’s problems was a personal favourite trait of any character in the book and Alexus captures them exquisitely.

At the premier, I met producer Carlos Pedraza and actor Davi Santos, who plays Tim. I felt the need to point this out as a pre-emptive mea culpa because I am so inherently British that even if Santos had displayed the acting ability of a petri dish and Pedraza went rogue at the Q&A by setting fire to the screen and head-butting an audience member, I would have been so shackled to compulsive manners that at the after-party I would simply have smiled politely and thanked them for a wonderful evening. Mercifully, no such subterfuge was required. As you may have deduced from the subtle hints I have peppered throughout this article like a mine-laying U-boat, I prefer Tim to Jace. As Tim, Santos delivers a truly knock-out performance. It looks effortless and that's no small task, given that many of Tim’s actions are, to put it mildly, questionable. At the Q&A afterwards, Santos explained his character as someone who is “a person totally and completely in love” and that’s what drives him. There’s a moment where Tim’s hand reaches up to Benjamin’s shoulder; between them, it is worth more than a monologue.

With its bright, pop dream-coloured cinematography, tight script, beautiful performances and lovely music, Something Like Summer is a wonderful love story and a joyful movie that I will return to again and again. It also drew tears from my friend Ashley, the Lady Stoneheart or Allison Cross of the circle.

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