Written by: Mike Le
Directed by: Paul Solet
Starring: Grace Phipps, Peter Stormare, and Keir Gilchrist
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Some crushes last forever.
I came of age as a teenager at the turn of the millennium, just when the internet was becoming a viable way to stay in touch. It was both exciting but slightly terrifying because, let me tell you, nothing is more dangerous than a medium that allows a teenage boy more access to the girls over which he obsesses. Fifteen years later, I can only imagine how awful it must be, especially for girls who have to deal with the constant whims of out of control hormones. The latest film from Paul Solet, Dark Summer couches itself in this milieu as it spins a familiar tale of ghastly vengeance from beyond the grave, one that ultimately reminds us that teenagers will do some weird, desperate shit in the name of love.
I hate to sound so glib, especially since Dark Summer lightly touches upon serious issues, but it only does so in the service of inciting the action. When we first meet Daniel (Keir Gilchrest), heís in the company of a probation officer (Peter Stormare), who lays out the terms of his house arrest: confined to his home via an ankle bracelet, heís unable to use any devices connected to the internet, and heís especially warned about contacting classmate Mona Wilson (Grace Phipps). Their exchange is ominous but ambiguous, and, while itís clear Daniel has done something to warrant this treatment, weíre not sure exactly what has transpired between the two. Both of his friends (Maestro Harrell & Stella Maeve) remain unconvinced that he deserves this; Mona, meanwhile, definitely feels slighted, going so far as to commit suicide during a Skype message. Horrified, Daniel begins to sense that this is just the beginning of Monaís revenge against him.
Dark Summer is sort of like Unfriended without the gimmick: while its story beats arenít exactly the same, the gist of it is here, as another scorned girl seeks to raise hell via electronic means. Well, initially, anyway, since Mona eventually settles on more traditional means, such as appearing in Danielís dreams, carving mysterious symbols on his chest, and deploying locusts. In keeping with the house arrest theme, Solet confines much of the haunting to Danielís home, and thereís a sinister vibe to the intimacy here. Close-ups and cluttered frames become suffocating as Solet hones in on the trio of friends and their attempt to ward off a malevolent spirit that simply wants Daniel to feel what she felt in life. Between the low-key nature of these hauntings and the scriptís focus on the characters, Dark Summer is nicely grounded and seems poised to explore the dark side of teenage angst.
Daniel is an especially intriguing case, as Gilchrestís soft, boyish features conflict with the shiftiness hiding behind his eyes. For much of the runtime, youíre not quite sure to believe the police or his friends. The only thing for sure is his deeply unsettling love for Mona, which borders on creepy, especially when heís unable to truly explain it to Abby, his longtime friend who clearly harbors romantic feelings for him. On paper, itís sort of an absurd love triangle (albeit one that inverts the typical dynamic featuring a whiny ďniceĒ boy pining over unrequited love), but thereís some interesting space to explore here because the tension is so palatable. So much weirdness flitters about, too: Danielís parents are strangely absent, and his probation officer comments on how even he canít get a read on him. Dark Summer seems to understand that nothing is more unsettling than a teenage boy with a crush and the ability to cyberstalk.
Which is sort of why its resolution is a bit disappointing on one level. Without spoiling, I can say that Dark Summer thrives on misdirection, and, once it begins to unspool its twists and turns, it also degenerates from slightly meditative to borderline schlock. Each new development sheds any pretense that the film is actually invested in the serious issues surrounding stalking and teen suicide, preferring instead to cast them aside for the stuff of soap operas. To its credit, it does attempt to outrun this turn of events by introducing some wild, goth girl mythology to the proceedings. Really, Dark Summer feels like it was made for every teenage girl who was ever scorned and took comfort in The Craft, and I cannot rightly criticize a movie on such grounds.
As a follow-up to Grace, Dark Summer isnít entirely dissatisfying: while it isnít as thematically rich as that film, it is at least a playful ghost story that moves efficiently before ending on a grisly, darkly comic note that doubles as an exclamation point confirming just how silly it all is. Maybe it doesnít quite document the teenage condition so much as it exploits it, but it does feature some rad curses and takes a girlís Wiccan phase to its logical, heart-ripping extreme, so weíll call it even. The latest co-release between IFC Midnight and Scream Factory, Dark Summer arrives on Blu-ray with a bevy of extras, including a commentary with Solet. Separate features document the filmís art and music, while most of the (sparse) cast participates in interviews (Stormareís is actually more of a fifteen minute conversation). A trailer represents the sole marketing material on a fine release for a film thatís just sort of snuck up on us.
For five years, weíve been waiting for Solet to return, and heís finally done so with little fanfare; if nothing else, Dark Summer is a reminder that its director is a promising talent with an eye for striking visuals. Here's hoping he doesn't stay on the sidelines between projects for so long in the future.
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