Sundance opening night film THE SUMMER OF SANGAILE seems to have everything you could want in an arthouse flick: lush cinematography, beautiful far off locales, young girls, young girls kissing, young girls cutting themselves, aviation… and lots of shots of people gazing off into the distance. In fact, I’ve never seen so many shots of people staring wistfully at something only they can see. Seems like every scene in Alanté Kavaïté’s second feature (and first since 2006) is filled with two or three of these shots, and about 10 minutes into the movie they lose their effectiveness. Forty minutes into the movie, when the mother joins into the act, it’s almost laughable.

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SOS – which is how I felt twenty minutes in – follows a teen drifting in life, Sangaile, who is a disappointment to her mother, an ex ballerina. Sangaile spends her days moping about their lush villa and cutting herself, but what she really wants to do is fly airplanes. Unfortunately she has vertigo. Sangaile comes off initially as shy, although her pretty much 180 degree shift instantaneously after meeting Auste makes me think that was a pretty poorly designed character choice.

Soon she’s rushing off to the beach in a car full of people that she doesn’t know, smoking pot, and having sex with strange boys under the power lines.  She meets Auste,  a quirky girl who makes clothes and shoots artsy photographs and … well that’s pretty much all we ever learn about her. Neither of the characters get more than a surface development, probably because that would leave less time for montages and long shots of people looking longingly out windows, in mirrors, over the sides of buildings.

The two girls become close, which quickly turns sexual, like “Blue is the Warmest Color” sexual. I think if this film was directed by a man you could probably accuse it of being exploitative. Since this is a female director, I guess it will be called nostalgic naivete or something. As Auste pushes Sangaile to stop cutting herself and chase her dreams, Sangaile starts to understand why her mother is disappointed in her. So halfway through, she goes up in a plane, in a sequence that is so poorly conceived its embarrassing. Why, if someone is trying to conquer vertigo would you take her up into 30 flips and spins and corkscrews? Wouldn’t you just take her up and bring her down?

 

That sort of inattention to realism is symptomatic of the film. Kavaïté seems more concerned with painting pretty pictures than telling an emotionally investing story. The dialogue (what there is of it) leaps around as if someone had cut random squares out of the day’s sides, and there seems to be no influence of one scene on the next. Even when Auste and Sangaile have their little fight, it’s forgotten five minutes later and the summer plods on, into another series of montages. By the way, often when using a montage to suggest time passing, characters seem to be wearing the same clothes for days on end, or they change once, then change back, as if Sangaile only has two shirts, or someone had misplaced the order of the scenes in the editing room.

Also I love the countless scenes where they are riding bikes, carrying either nothing or a very small bag, but are suddenly doing photoshoots with mermaid fins and elaborate bjork-esque costuming. Or shooting nine costume changes in the same day (or maybe it wasn’t the same day, so hard to tell…. ) I’m not one of those people always looking for continuity errors but there were so many of these moments I was constantly being brought out of the film. And I was easily brought out of the film because there was so little happening.

The saddest thing about The Summer of Sangaile is that Kavaïté really has a good eye. The film is dazzling to look at, but the story just isn’t there. This film could have been a really great 20-minute short, but as is, at 90 minutes, it felt like a whole summer had passed by the time it was over.

Even more trying was the considerable inertia of the plot. Once Sangaile and Auste meet, they pretty much have one extended dating sequence until they fight. Then there are a series of montages that leap us forward in time, though its hard to tell how far.

Sangaile’s parents completely disappear during the second half of the movie. The ballerina angle never pays off, they never notice their daughter cuts herself, or that she stops cutting herself, or that she goes for random swims in the lake in the middle of the night with all her clothes on. They might as well not even have been introduced as characters for the lack of influence they have on the events in the film.

Then there is the end, which leaps forward two years, completely losing the connection between the characters (or the development of the relationship in the missing time frame). AND THEN, the film has the audacity to have a character say “Time has passed so fast” – really? The film could have ended before the time jump and have the same amount of effectiveness, which was really not very much.

Not a great start to Sundance, but my second film, THE BRONZE, a raunchy gymnastics comedy, was much, much better. But more on that in the future I’m sure. This is my first of hopefully daily reviews from Sundance. Follow me on twitter @bearsfonte for my up to the minute (okay, hour) reactions.

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