SXSW 2018 Review: Summer ’03 is the Female Lead Coming of Age Sex Comedy We Deserve.
When Becca Gleason introduced the 2nd SXSW screening of Summer ’03, I was a bit nervous. Gleason said that her directorial debut was a very strange film which definitely intrigued me but she also pointed out that if you aren’t a fan of blowjob jokes than you should probably leave before the film even starts. After sitting through Blockers the night before, I didn’t think I could handle another gross-out sex comedy about teenagers, but luckily Summer ’03 wasn’t like Blockers at all. In fact, Summer ’03 is a near perfect coming of age sex comedy told entirely from a female perspective.
Summer ’03 follows Jamie (Joey King) during her summer vacation in 2003. Jamie, through voice over opens the film discussing how great summer usually is. We are then introduced to Jamie as she is sitting next to her grandmother Dotty (June Squibb) at the hospital. Dotty is clearly very ill, and Jamie’s family doesn’t think that she will be around much longer. Dotty decides on her deathbed that she is going to be brutally honest with each member of her family. She begins to tell each one of them a secret with the exception of Jamie who is told two. The first secret is that Jamie was secretly baptized as a child (she is half Jewish) and the second is that she needs to learn how to give a proper blowjob. Not knowing how to react or what to do with the information that her grandmother has presented to her, she looks to religion for the answers. It is at a church where she discovers that she has feelings for a soon-to-be-ordained young priest named Luke (Jack Kilmer). This leads to an exciting summer filled with family conflict as well as sexual discovery.
Joey King is an actress that I feel I have watched grow up on-screen. Over the past few years, King has matured as an actress and seeing her in a well-crafted leading role has been long overdue. Joey King’s performance as Jamie is spectacular and full of depth. As Jamie, King embraces precisely what it is like to be an awkward teenager. She is shown struggling with family drama and exploring her sexuality. Jamie does a lot of self-reflecting throughout the film, and I love how natural all these moments felt. King showcases so much range in this role. She is dramatic, emotional, funny, and strong. Jamie is a great well-rounded character that thousands, if not millions of teenage girls can and will relate to. King truly embraces Gleason’s story as though it was her own. She brings such a level of authenticity to her performance that it should be celebrated as this is a realistic sex comedy film about a teenage girl dealing with the everyday struggles of growing up.
As someone who is so tired of mainstream sex comedies that rely on gross-out gags, infantile humor, and constant swearing, I couldn’t be more thrilled to watch a coming of age sex comedy that features fully developed characters in odd yet realistic situations. What Gleason has accomplished with her debut film is a breath of fresh air. She understands that you can be raunchy without going over the top. Gleason sets up this entire film with the premise of Jamie’s dying grandmother telling her that Jews go to Hell and that she must learn how to give a great blowjob. It is a pretty wild and raunchy setup, but instead of spending the next 95 minutes trying to top it, Gleason focuses on developing Jamie and showing her trying to understand things that are going on in her life.
Throughout the film, we learn more about Jamie and spend the summer with her. Jamie has a crush on Luke and really wants to pursue him. She goes out of her way to do her makeup and dress sexy, however, she doesn’t get the reaction that she hoped for. This is when she begins to pursue March (Stephen Ruffin) her lifelong friend who she also sort of has feelings for. We also learn about Jamie’s friend Emily (Kelly Lamor Wilson) who she looks up to for having a lot of sexual experience but Jamie doesn’t entirely view sex the same way that as Emily does. In addition to this, her entire family life is pretty complicated as they struggle to come to terms with the secrets they learned after the passing of Dotty. A lot is going on during Jamie’s summer, and somehow the film’s 95-minute runtime perfectly explores and captures all of these moments.
While Jamie trying to come to terms with her life and sexuality is the primary focus of the film, her mother Shira and father, Ned, play a pivotal role in shaping the story. Shira (Andrea Savage) is trying to keep everyone sane after Dotty reveals to Ned (Paul Scheer) that his father wasn’t really his father. Beyond upset by new information, Ned goes off on a wild goose chase to find his real father leaving the rest of his family behind during a time where they need him the most. I really love films that feature dysfunctional families and this one is no different. Savage and Scheer perfectly cast as Jamie’s mom and dad. They are flawed people but you can tell that they care about their kid despite their own shortcomings. Savage and Scheer share a nice mix of laughs and genuine moments in the film. I especially liked the scenes where they were discussing Herman (Rick Andosca) and if he was a racist or not.
Summer ’03 is a terrific blend of comedy and drama. When the joke hit, they hit big. The funeral scene near the end of the film is a shining example of how a scene can be both hilarious and heartbreaking at the same time. This is a great movie moment but is oddly enough grounded in reality. This scene is all about Jamie coming to terms with herself and everything that has happened over the summer. It is incredibly funny but equally raw and powerful. This is the moment where Jamie comes full circle and realizes that she must acknowledge her mistakes and shortcomings.
All in all, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Summer ’03 isn’t just an indie gem but one of the best female-driven coming of age sex comedies to date. It is a strange yet personal film in the same vein as Edge of Seventeen and Lady Bird. Becca Gleason is a filmmaker to keep an eye on and I hope that this film will shine a light on Joey King as a truly talented actress who can certainly hold her own film. In addition, I can only hope someone picks up this film and it leads the way for more female filmmakers to write personal stories and bring them to life on film. Summer ’03 is what a coming of age sex comedy should be and leave it up to a first-time filmmaker to show Hollywood how to do it right.