Summer of ’72 is a strong showing from feature debut writer-director Philip Harder. His film tries to balance two main themes at once. Just getting away with it thanks to some stunning visuals and stand out performances from Natalia Dyer and Marchánt Davis.
War protests and racial tension sizzle in the late summer heat of Tuscaloosa, Alabama. College grad Billy (Devon Bostick) spends the summer working the grounds of an asylum run by his psychiatrist father (Tate Donovan). As Billy falls for Virginia (Natalia Dyer), a patient at his father’s institute. His best friend Nigel (Marchánt Davis) becomes involved with a radical civil rights activist against Tuscaloosa’s power elite.
What surprises most in Summer of ’72 is the strong direction and cinematography by director Philip Harder and cinematographer Theo Stanley that allows the film to tell its story better than most. Small instances of one-shots of Nigel and Billy conversing and we then follow Nigel out of his BBQ hut. It is wonderfully free-flowing and loose. There is a calmness present on the screen. We are open to this friendship and how comfortable they are together. This is ultimately halted by the arrival of Nigel’s civil rights friend as the flowing nature of the camera becomes far more static. It is simple tricks utilised here that make the film stands out.
Even the use of framing is key to the success of the movie as we get intense close-ups of characters but rarely are their faces dead centre. For Virginia, close-ups come slightly skewed, showing how we as an audience should view her, or how Billy views her. As mentioned previously, for a feature debut this is as visually commanding a drama such as this can be considering its low key nature.
With so many plots to juggle Harder manages to keep it together. Which is no easy task considering the myriad of elements at hand. The decision to focus not only on the star crossed lovers plot but also the activism by Nigel is quite bold. There is a great sensitivity to allow both to interweave together and the more we learn about Virginia the more haunting her experience has been and to how it almost echoes Billy and Nigel’s mothers.
On occasion the big moments do not hit as well as they could there is still a lot to enjoy within the Summer of ’72. However, as well as Harder does to interweave this adaption with the two main threads it does have its struggles and in truth. It may have been better for the film to rein back in one of the plots to let the other breath a bit more. That or to increase the runtime so both could provide out more story.
Sure some moments are a tad too convenient. Scenes such as Billy’s father being in the room for all of the attacks and to witness as much as he does. Also, the fact that Virginia is a mental patient yet there is never a true urgency to the fact that she is missing for long stints. Especially in the evenings. But, Summer of ‘72 still works very well. Especially so when it focuses on Dyer who wraps the audience in with her performance. She plays charming Virginia excellently. As we get to know her a little more Dyer shines as we get to see her more dramatic side.
Marchánt Davis stands out here in Summer of ’72. A character who is conflicted in his relationship with someone he has known for all of his life. Who only brings him reminders of the mother that he lost. Couple this with the era and location of where he resides then we have someone who is a prime candidate for radical activism. Throughout the film, his performance causes the audience to wonder what a movie about his character would be like. A character that suffers the loss of his mother at a young age. Has links to a rich white family. But is being radicalised from his comfortable enough life to cause damage in the face of activism. It is a fascinating angle to go down. Regardless Davis has a bright future.
Summer of ’72 has an awful lot to unpack in its 100 minutes. Happily, it does so with the greatest of ease thanks to its strong performances and direction. This is an underrated gem ready for watching.
Signature Entertainment presents Summer of ‘72 on Digital Platforms 1st February.
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