A smart and sweet riff through “Grease,” “Footloose,” “High School Musical” and scads of other upbeat, teen-skewing entertainments, “Best Summer Ever” greatly impress with its deft balance of affectionate homage and exuberant inclusivity. Working from a peppy screenplay they co-wrote with Will Halby, Andrew Pilkington and Terra Mackintosh, directors Michael Parks Randa and Lauren Smitelli keep the mood so beguilingly light and bright, even during brief romantic setbacks, that it’s remarkably easy to suspend disbelief and gratefully delight in a world where racial divides and ableist prejudices are nonexistent, and just about the only negative stereotype on view is a mean-girl cheerleader.
The all-embracing attitude that propels “Best Summer Ever” is on full display right from the start. It’s the last day of the season at Lakeview Dance Camp, as young sweethearts Sage (Shannon DeVido), who uses a wheelchair, and her football-player boyfriend Tony (Ricky Wilson Jr.) lead a spirited production number in which roughly half the participants are physically or developmentally challenged — a ratio sustained throughout the rest of the film.
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Parting is such sorrow for the pair: Sage is going on the road again with her unconventional moms, Gillian (Holly Palmer) and Kate (Eileen Grubba), itinerant marijuana farmers who journey from place to place in search of secluded planting grounds. Tony says he’s bound for New York to study at a prestigious dance academy — which is a lie, but we’ll get to that later — and will miss Sage every day that they’re apart.
Of course, they don’t stay apart very long.
When their vehicle breaks down in small-town Pennsylvania, Gillian and Kate rent a cabin in a secluded area where the “cannabis cultivators” (as they call themselves) can raise their crop. Sage, seizing a rare opportunity for stability in her life, enrolls in a nearby high school — where, on her first day of class, she runs into Tony.
Turns out that Tony is the kicker for the Mount Abe Eagles, a hapless high school team that is relying heavily on him — and not at all on Cody (Jacob Waltuck), their klutzy quarterback — to end the school’s 25-year run of losing homecoming games. Truth to tell, he’d rather be a ballet dancer than an ace kicker. But he keeps his terpsichorean tendencies (and his enrollment in a dance camp) a secret from his classmates, preferring to tell them, or rather sing to them, about the terrific girl he met at a more conventional summer camp. Meanwhile, Sage describes to her friends the terrific guy she met during the summer. All of which cues the team mascot to comment: “This sounds so familiar. Tell me more, tell me more.”
That’s only one of the cheeky wink-wink references to other musicals you’ll find in “Best Summer Ever,” a movie that includes a solo dance in a barn where you half-expect Tony to bump into Kevin Bacon, and a passing reminder that Patrick Swayze also had some smooth moves in his prime.
Overall, however, “Best Summer Ever” is too earnest and charming to ever feel smart-alecky or unduly spoofy, and the winning performances by DeVido and Wilson go a long way toward encouraging a serious emotional investment in the relationship between Sage and Tony.
The major impediment to their happily-ever-aftering? Ruthless beauty Beth also has designs on Tony — if only to trade on his star power so she can be elected homecoming queen. As played by MuMu (aka Madeline Rhodes), who co-wrote most of the movie’s clever songs with Peter Halby, Beth is an amusingly over-the-top mean girl on steroids, so wicked that she actually thanks a “Lordess of Eternal Death” when things go her way. But we all know what happens to characters like that in movies like this, right?
By the way: Look very closely, and you’ll spot fleeting cameo appearances by Benjamin Bratt, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard. Their characters are of minimal importance to the plot — but, really, who can blame them for wanting to drop by and join the fun?
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