Review: Once Upon A Summer (B-)

In the classic movie Stand By Me, the narrator says, “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve…does anyone?” This is certainly true for Lisa and Andy, the two main characters of Once Upon A Summer (directed by Rob Diamond and written together with Andrea Curtis — available on DVD and, as I discovered, on Amazon Instant Video).

In 1978, 8-year-old cousins Andy and Lisa lived with their grandparents and served as each other’s best (and only) friend during the long summer.  As the film opens, present-day Lisa (Suzanne Sutchy, Minor Details) is in the process of a divorce, and Andy (Heather Beers, Charly / Baptists At Our Barbecue) has just been diagnosed with terminal cancer.  Each struggling with their own overwhelming personal problems, the two childhood friends reconnect at their old play-place and reminisce about happier times when they were younger.

Once Upon A Summer’s primary strength is its characters.  Its theme about close friendships and the blessings they bring as children and as adults will resonate with a lot of viewers (particularly women).  Beers and Sutchy — despite having a much smaller part in the movie than you might think given their prominent listing on the DVD cover — have strong “chemistry” together in portraying a life-long friendship that has spanned several decades.   Most of the film, though, takes place in flashback form in the summer of 1978, where we meet the girls’ grandparents — equally strong characters — and learn about the experiences that (in theory) shaped their adulthood.

In a rarity for most films, Once Upon A Summer is actually too short.  At only 78 minutes, running time is sparse — good for pacing, certainly, but hurtful when the two main adult characters end up with less than twenty minutes of screen-time, and some of the spiritual themes the film wishes to introduce don’t have adequate time to flower and resonate.  Compounding the problem, some of the scenes that take up the already-limited running time are irrelevant at best, and confusing at worst — including a completely out-of-left-field supernatural plot twist that seems to be from a different movie altogether.

Let’s look at the details:

When we first see the adult Lisa, she’s having a phone argument with her husband Rob about their impending divorce.  Rob maintains that their relationship still has hope (“What we had was great…it can be that way again.”), but Lisa seems committed to leaving (“You need to move on…I have.”)  This scene is well-written, but unclear on what specific personality conflict triggered the divorce.  “Work” is the only answer Lisa gives when Andy asks her this question directly, although what does that mean, exactly?  Is she literally living in her office now instead of with Rob and the kids?  (More on this later…)

In contrast, Andy is happily married with a young daughter when she finds out her recent bouts of sickness are more serious than previously thought.  Finding out she has less than a year to live, Lisa is the first person she thinks to call.  They meet and discuss the “happier times” back when they were together in the summer of ’78 (“Everything was so perfect back then…”)

Was it?  Surprisingly, the majority of the 1978 sequences we’re shown in flashback are negative — enough so that we’re not sure why these two women remember this period so fondly.  As kids, Andy and Lisa had no friends other than each other.  They were visibly burdened with resentment over their absent parents.   They constantly clash with the neighbor kids, and receive nothing but judgment and disdain from the other LDS families in the area.   Most of the time they are bored (or pushed into arranged lessons or activities they hate).    It’s obvious why they have a strong friendship — they were there for each other during this seemingly troubled period in their lives — but other than their baptism, nothing particularly positive happens to them during this time.

Wait, now, “other than their baptism”?  (“Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the theater?”)   Let’s look at the spiritual elements of Once Upon A Summer, then…

Andy and Lisa’s grandparents are notably not quite from the same mold as LDS characters in other movies.  They smoke and drink, haven’t been to church in years, but are genuinely good people and have committed themselves to raising their grandchildren in a moral manner.  They bristle at the judging and condescending looks they get from other members, and shake their heads regretfully at how their own kids turned out, but still provide a positive example of parenting in all respects.  They are the “heroes” of the film, while some of the other active LDS members are portrayed as the “villains” — an unconventional approach for an LDS filmmaker, but certainly effective here.  (The missionaries make a point of telling them they are good people and their “Word Of Wisdom” habits have no relationship to their goodness — as if there was any doubt.)  Nevertheless, their background demonstrates that although Andy and Lisa have nominally LDS family members, they have not spent a lot of time in church meetings, nor likely have had much of a traditionally religious upbringing (prayer, scriptures, etc).  What do Lisa and Andy believe?

The shortness of Once Upon A Summer makes answering this question difficult, as little time is spent on their personal and spiritual philosophies.  The film contains a strong opening statement about the spiritual direction it wants to take in the very first scene where both girls talk about their upcoming baptism the next day, and what it signifies. (“being cleansed of all of our sins.”)   However, the majority of the 1978 experiences shown in the film outside of this conversation have little to do with the girls’ spirituality.  They don’t meet with the missionaries until there are twenty minutes left in the film, and then we cut immediately to their baptismal service.  We still don’t know what these girls actually believe.  The film hasn’t given us a sense of why they wanted to be baptized in the first place, or to what extent the promise of being cleansed of sins is meaningful to them.   The experiences around the town within the flashback sequences don’t seem to be pointing to any kind of faith development or spiritual awakening.   For all we know, they got baptized because…the missionaries asked them to.

(When meeting with the missionaries, both grandparents share concerns about how the girls will be received (and/or judged) by the other LDS members — a natural concern since we’ve already seen much evidence of this already.   This concern is glossed over by the missionaries;  wouldn’t the girls naturally be a little hesitant to sit in the same primary classes as the neighbor kids who despise them?   The film doesn’t have time for any preparatory scenes to show that the girls are now developed enough spiritually such that personal conflicts with ward members are no longer an issue.)

Lisa describes this time as a “beacon in the night” for her the rest of her life — which sounds positive enough, but I would have liked the film to connect the dots a little more, to show how the girls’ faith developed and in what form.  As adults, Andy and Lisa don’t talk about any spiritual beliefs other than the existence of an afterlife and the importance of families — beliefs shared by 90% of the world, after all.   We still have no idea whether they’ve remained active LDS into adulthood, whether their spouses are members, or anything to tie directly into their (supposed) LDS conversion.   LDS viewers will be able to fill in the gaps with their own spiritual beliefs and experiences, but I hoped for more detail and exploration of how, exactly, their baptism and conversion shaped their lives.  (Especially given how the film ends…)

Once Upon A Summer takes a very questionable turn around the two-thirds mark, when the two girls have a “supernatural” encounter with the ghost of a young boy who drowned in the local pond.  A ghost, you say?  Indeed, literally — not (as viewers may presume when the scene starts) a misunderstanding involving a living boy, or a practical joke by their grandfather or others in the neighborhood.   The tone of this scene is jarringly out-of-sorts from the rest of the film, and directly at odds with the great effort spent to set up an LDS context for the characters.  I would challenge the filmmakers (or anyone) to explain the dynamics of this sequence from an LDS perspective:  is this ghost boy supposed to be in spirit prison?  Spirit paradise?  Something completely different?  After Andy comforts the boy with thoughts of “heaven” and he disappears into the void, we flash-forward to the adult Lisa asking Andy if she still believes the things about the afterlife she told “that boy”, in a casual tone as if “that boy” were just a neighbor kid they talked to on the street rather than a honest-to-goodness ghostly apparition.

This segment takes six minutes of a movie that’s only 78-minutes long, and is completely disconnected from any of its themes.  Such a capital-S Significant experience would naturally have had a profound effect on both girls’ views of religion and the spirit world.  Would their experience have fit into the doctrines of the plan of salvation they would have heard from the missionaries?  Would this have an impact on their testimony and decision to be baptized?  We don’t know — this experience is never mentioned again, and becomes a weird tangent for a film that didn’t really have time to spare.   Strange, strange, strange…

The last two minutes of Once Upon A Summer contain an off-hand comment that requires more discussion:  In voiceover, Lisa describes how Andy passes away peacefully later that year and that she (Lisa) has decided to return home to her husband.   No surprise there, obviously, but then Lisa describes how she decided to “put her family first” by quitting her job and “letting her husband be the breadwinner in the family.”

Wait…say what?  For all the nuanced “real world” family situations set up during the rest of the film, Once Upon A Summer now wants to simplify Lisa and Rob’s marital problems to “women shouldn’t be working outside the home”?

Let’s be honest here: there is exactly zero percent chance that a film with a male lead who happened to spending too much time at work and needed some adjustment in his priorities would end with him saying, “I needed to put my family first by quitting my job to spend more time with my kids and let my wife be the bread-winner”.  He would be encouraged simply to keep a healthy balance between work and family.  (The Church-produced film Together Forever has a segment that does exactly this…)

We know men should put family first.  We know women should put family first.   Lisa needs a shift in priorities — no argument.  However, since she obviously has a good job supporting her family financially, and we’re told directly in the film that Rob is “fine” with being a house-husband, what’s the problem here?   The “problem” seems to be solely that Lisa is a woman.

This is a surprisingly strident “moral” to the story for the writers of Once Upon A Summer to propose.  There are LDS who view women working outside the home as a threat to family security and stability, and others who would consider such an idea as hopelessly outdated at best, and grossly sexist at worst.  (The sisters at Feminist Mormon Housewives would have a conniption fit if they saw how this movie ended…)

The writers of the film have all rights to choose whatever message they prefer for their own film, naturally.  However, we still have a problem:  this conclusion is not supported by the content of the movie itself. If we’re genuinely supposed to think the serious relationship problems in Lisa and Rob’s marriage can be alleviated simply by switching roles, then the film needs to connect the dots a little better.  We have no basis for accepting that the fundamental problem in Lisa and Rob’s marriage is simply that she’s working and he isn’t.    We have no basis for assuming Rob is bothered at all by Lisa having a job — “intimidated by her success” as a co-worker puts it — especially when we’re directly told the opposite.  We have no basis for assuming Lisa is fleeing from domestic responsibilities through her divorce (she and Rob argue at the beginning about splitting up custody of the kids).  And, given that Lisa’s LDS beliefs are in question to begin with, we have no basis for thinking her religious beliefs would manifest themselves in a strong enough (and conservative enough) way to base an important decision simply on traditional views of gender roles.

There’s a lot of assumptions being made here.   If the filmmakers aren’t depending on LDS audiences to accept this thesis blindly without argument — some will, and some won’t — then the segments of the film featuring Lisa and Rob need to make this case more explicitly.   One cannot escape the feeling that if Lisa were a man, the “moral” of the story would be completely different:  don’t make work the number-one priority, that’s all.

(One of Lisa’s co-workers speaks of Rob with contempt early in the film, saying Lisa needs to abandon that “stay-at-home mom” who is “going nowhere fast”.  We (the viewers) are meant to reject this summary judgment of Rob’s character — as Lisa does at the time — but this last section of narration puts the film on the co-worker’s side of the argument — that Rob truly is somehow “less than a man” and “going nowhere fast”  with a need to be rescued from home life to a job on the outside, not only for his sake, but everyone else’s too.)

Admittedly, this may be over-analyzing a couple of brief sentences that may very well have been thrown in at the end by the writers without intending it to be the primary lesson of the film.   However, it does exemplify my primary complaint with the film — too short of a running time.  Too little time spent with Lisa and Rob as adults to get a handle on their relationship and what needs to change, whether working roles in the family or something else.   Not enough time to support and celebrate the main characters’ baptism and spiritual development, without simply taking it for granted.   Once Upon A Summer succeeds as a tribute to close friends and the love and support they provide — and a side lesson about judging others.  As an examination of marriage or baptism, though, there are just as many questions raised as answers.

Final Grade: B-