Review by Geoff Arbuckle
Director Soshi Matsumoto’s debut feature It’s a Summer Film! is playing on demand at this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival. It’s a lovely coming of age story that is simultaneously hilarious and over the top in all the best ways. It’s about teenage school girl Barefoot’s drive to make a samurai film that will touch her Film Club classmates on a deeper level than her rival’s, popular girl Karin (naturally), mushy, vapid teen rom-com.
Immediately, this movie pops on screen with vibrant color and wonderfully familiar settings. We start at school where Karin’s film is being fawned over while tomboy-ish Barefoot is left to stew over the absolutely dumb mush happening to her eyes and ears. She meets up with one of her best friends, nerdy Kickboard from the Astronomy Club, and retreat to the place where they feel most comfortable being themselves – an abandoned bus they’ve furnished and wired up to watch old samurai films on DVD. They are soon joined by the third member of this trio of warrior-loving girls, Blue Hawaii, herself a student of Kendo.
Now, while the school is familiar to anyone who’s maybe ever lived ever, the thought of an abandoned bus in the field being something that anyone has used with their friends to escape after school isn’t so much. However, this is the stand-in for a clubhouse for these girls. The journey to and from the clubhouse is also familiar, luscious fields of green against a late afternoon sky. These are things that people picture in their youth and it helped connect me to Barefoot and Kickboard even more.
Speaking of Barefoot, she’s played by the incredibly talented Marika Ito. She does so much acting with her face and expression that I couldn’t stop laughing during the moments of quiet, rage fueled disdain she would give to Karin or to others who attempt to push her out of her comfort zone. The amount of acting her face does is more than I’ve probably seen every single actor or actress do with their entire body and voice in the last, oh, 15 years. It’s so expressive, you never have to look at her character and try to figure out what Ito is trying to project. That said, she does get the rest of her body into the action too. She’s often hunched over, she flails her arms in ways that makes her seem almost out of place or uncertain how to carry herself in other scenes. She is everything you’d expect this type of person to be like.
Despite the urging of Kickboard and Blue Hawaii for Barefoot to film her excellent screenplay for a movie called Samurai Spring, Barefoot is hesitant. She cannot find the right guy to play the lead. That is until she has a run-in with the mysterious Rintaro, played by Daichi Kaneko. Rintaro was present at a screening of an old samurai film that Barefoot was at, and they were both left weeping at the end of the movie. It takes a bunch of convincing to finally get Rintaro into the production, and away Barefoot and her ragtag crew go to film her movie.
What’s great about this movie is that we get to see equal parts of realism and fanatasy. To get the budget to make the movie and rent the equipment needed, Barefoot, Kickboard, and Sintaro have to get a job as movers. Then, as they prepare to start filming, they have inexperienced people doing sound and getting in the shot, Sintaro is stiff and awkward, and then they are interrupted by Karin’s rom-com shoot. As they keep going, things go well until Barefoot gets a combination of writer’s block for how she wants her movie to end as well as a twist that happens that causes her to have to question her desire to be successful as a master director of films.
The fantasy comes in the extremely kid-centric film. You don’t see teachers at the school. You really only have maybe two adults with dialog. It has that familiar 80s feel of a Goonies or something similar to that where the kids are doing things that you’d normally only see adults doing. We see both that fantasy world of school kids and that realism of the struggle of making a movie. It’s a Summer Film! almost perfectly encapsulates the whole experience of making videos or movies on a really, really small budget.
In addition to presenting the outsiders creating art – as well as having teenage girls passionate about samurai action films, It’s a Summer Film! also has things to comment on film as a whole. During the course of the movie Barefoot views Karin through the eyes of jealousy and rivalry, but that teenage angst against the popular, pretty girl making a movie that people are fawning over transformers into a sort of friendship at an important turning point for both filmmakers. That gives way to commentary on how, regardless how either side feels about the other, indie films with deeper messaging and popcorn mainstream films need one another. There would be no indie films without the cultural significance of mainstream films. Without indie film, the mainstream probably couldn’t appeal to those looking for a shallower escape. It’s a great way to soften our hero to open her mind to the mainstream and our supposed villain to show that she does also care about the more personal, deeper stuff.
While I do feel there are a couple minor things that can derail this movie for a small number of viewers, like a love triangle that doesn’t really go anywhere or necessary and a major twist that fuels the entire second half of the movie that may feel like it comes out of nowhere. The love triangle would be my main negative mark against this movie but it’s a very, very small mark as the whole thing literally only spends about 30 seconds on screen in two or three scenes. The twist is big, but, for me, it’s important to also tackle the concept of fear of success as things start coming together.
In all, It’s a Summer Film! is going to be one of my favorite movies of 2021. It’s so pleasant and uplifting and the end, while, on the surface, kind of silly, is a perfect chef’s kiss as it relates to the deeper meaning of films, and hero stories in particular. Director Masumoto has opened his film career on a huge high that I think will please anyone who wants to ride that enthusiasm the younger generations have when they set out to create art.
It’s a Summer Film! is playing Fantasia 2021 on its on demand service.