By Kim Morgan
Press Play Contributor
Swoony, sexy, ethereal and finally, touchingly toxic, My Summer of Love is a picture with a darkness that’s heightened not by shadows, but by beautiful, unsettling light. Part Heavenly Creatures, part Three Women , part Polanski-tome, but an animal all its own, the picture is a coming-of-age tale that eschews the typical traps of that genre by making the friendship — and really, the love affair — between two precocious female adolescents into something both powerfully obscure and beautifully familiar.
Young, intriguing, different women/teens can be viewed as odd birds, no matter how acceptably “wacky” cinema attempts to paint them. We see movies like Mean Girls, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Juno, Easy A or even Thirteen, and are left with impressions that may ring true for certain aspects of the teen population, but remain utterly false for others. Girls who related to Ghost World (as I did and still do -- though I find myself in both Thora Birch and Steve Buscemi, which disturbs me at times), don't see the big deal in Thirteen, would laugh at the "mean girls" in school, and wonder why Juno would let some older guy convince her that Blood Feast was better than Suspiria. No way. In My Summer of Love, issues, or catch-phrases like “sisterhood" (especially in regard to traveling pants), and “rebellion” aren’t terms these beguiling leads would even bother to utter. That kind of drama is just there -- the regular aspects or impediments to a type of life they’re attempting to escape and re-create. And re-creation is key.
The entrancing young leads are Mona (Natalie Press) a freckled, somewhat awkward but smart and spontaneous blonde with hints of a young Sissy Spacek. More robust and working class, she lives with her reformed-ex-con, now Jesus Freak brother Phil (Paddy Considine) above a pub/church meeting space. A lonely girl, she’s having a somewhat sick, un-fulfilling sexual relationship with a married man much older than her. (He nails her in his car, then leaves her on the side of the road. Wonderful.) In all likelihood, Mona yearns for a real friend and some real beauty in her life.
She meets that friend on a hot day after taking a spill from her scooter -- a pathetic little thing without a motor that she pedals like a heavy bike, a perfect touch. This girl is making do. And she's strong. But all that strength begins to melt as she stares into the glow of a princess. Recovering from her earthly spill, she looks up, and there appears the dark haired, patrician-lovely Tasmin (young Emily Blunt) who is with (of course), a white horse — a knight-ess in diaphanous armor. Intellectual Tasmin essentially “saves” Mona by welcoming the working class girl into the upper crust-ness of her family's ivy-covered mansion. Of course her life isn't so easy, either.
One of those rich girls with parents who pay her no attention, leaving her alone in the castle, Tasmin spends her days playing cello (Saint-Saen’s melancholy “The Swan” which, interestingly also serves as the name of Mona’s brother’s pub), trying on various expensive clothes, teaching Mona of Nietzsche and Edith Piaf, and confessing the drama of her dead sister. How did the sister die? From the tragic but glamorously teenage disease of anorexia. Yes indeed, you can be too rich and too thin. If this all sounds, for lack of a better word, pretentious, it's supposed to be. Drama is delicious. And it makes a lot of sense by the picture's end.
The movie amps up Mona and Tasmin's intense friendship when they eventually become lovers -- not only indulging their sexual longings, but doing what many teenage girls sadistically enjoy: Fucking with people, especially men. They really torture brother Phil, the Christian who harbors a palatable attraction for Tasmin. What's brave about the movie is that, like Fish Tank (another terrific film about a teenage girl), My Summer of Love does not back away from the idea that their attraction could actually be sexy. But in contrast to the heroine of Fish Tank, Tasmin appears to be utterly in charge. In one scene Phil ambles up to the girls while they sunbathe. Innocent enough, except Tasmin is topless, and she looks at him with the most blasé yet unnervingly attractive expression, one that would bedevil even the most virtuous man. Her look says: "I’m young, I'm gorgeous, you want me, what’s the big deal other than I'm jail-bait and you're a Christian? Now, let me torture you further." What later happens between them is unexpected and, in its own way shocking. I won't reveal it here.
But the situation with Phil does summon even more personality quirks in all characters and create tension between the two best friends. Their center-of-the-universe stance on life begins to crumble, and all of those head games reveal an extra cruelty and an unforgivable deception to come later. In deceivingly simplistic terms, you’ll see how utterly complex and inscrutable girl/love/friendship can be. and how simultaneously fake and utterly genuine this type of “female bonding” can be as it manifests itself. It's not always pure as sunshine. But then, you can learn from toxic people as well. And even with heartbreak, it remains relentlessly romantic. For any woman who recalls an intense teenage bond, girl-girl love, this movie gets it so right, it really does hurt.
Which is why writer-director Pawel Pawlikowski’s movie is a stroke of near genius. Where did he pick this up? How does he understand girls so well? Are both Lars Von Trier and Sofia Coppola pen pals? Filming with a style that’s both picaresque and rough — like a Dogme film merged with the soft sexuality and undeniably gorgeousness of photographer David Hamilton — he lingers on young limbs intertwined in the sun, lips, freckles, eyes, hair. He covets, but with that nice layer of dirt. Nothing is perfect, of course. The film strikingly conveys the power of youth, but spikes it with a touch of evil that’s erotically creepy. These girls, no matter how much they go through or inflict upon others, are not mere victims, simplistic sex objects, or "mean girls"; they are exceptional and real and mysterious. You understand why teenage girls, sometimes with embarrassment, make us catch our breath — they fill us with ennui and, yes, desire. But because the performances are so potent and frequently funny, never once do you feel a sense of exploitation; it's as if these young women are controlling the film’s frames through pure guile. They're thinking, and they know what we're thinking.
And many women know what they're up to. I certainly did. By the picture's end, you may relate to the girls, but you'll also feel (and especially men will feel) a bit like Mona's Jesus-freak brother. Yes. We love these girls surrounded by beauty, great authors, and melodramatically glamorous stories about wasted-away sisters, but we could easily resent them. When given the opportunity, they can be the snake in the garden, offering that delicious, juicy, apple. In My Summer of Love — if the darkness persists later in life -- the apple will be offered to something neither they or any other teenage girl is, or ever was: Snow White.