Plot-wise, there isn’t much that is new about the musical “Best Summer Ever,” directed by Michael Parks Randa and Lauren Smitelli. The story involves two teens who meet at a dance summer camp and fall in love before going their separate ways. Tony (Ricky Wilson Jr.) is supposedly going home to New York, where he attends a performing arts school. Sage (Shannon DeVido) returns to her moms, who are pot-growers who move frequently to wherever the crop is good (and to avoid the cops).
Naturally, when Sage and her family randomly choose to move to Tennessee, Sage reunites with Tony at her new school. It turns out that Tony is not going to a performing arts school in New York City, nor is it common knowledge that he likes to dance. Rather, he is a star football player who the entire community is counting on to help end the school’s 25 year losing streak. Initially disappointed that Tony lied to her, Sage ends up helping him become more comfortable and confident in his love of dance, while the scheming cheerleader Beth (MuMu) and fellow football player Cody (Jacob Waltuck) try to break them up for their own selfish means.
The broad strokes of the story feel like they are lifted straight from “High School Musical,” which was in turn a retelling of “Grease.” In other words, it’s incredibly familiar. But the filmmakers approach the material with a purpose that sets it apart from other movie musicals, and in fact, most other movies. The cast is equally comprised of abled and disabled members in a variety of roles, and their disabilities are not made a part of the plot; in fact, they aren’t mentioned at all. The film (which is the first feature production from Zeno Mountain Farm) imagines a world where people with mental and physical disabilities are treated equally. It can certainly be argued that this approach erases the real world struggles that disabled people face, but I don’t think it is bad representation either. The world we see on screen may not reflect reality, but it’s also a musical; for this kind of wholesome and light-hearted fare, it’s great to see people who are not often given such front and center roles playing key parts in this film.
The cast is filled with talented young people who all appear to be having a great time. DeVido is a charming leading lady with a truly beautiful voice. Wilson is charismatic. MuMu revels in her bad girl character, and she’s one of the most delightful people to watch on screen. Emily Kranking’s nice cheerleader is also quite funny, as are Holly Palmer and Eileen Grubba, who play Sage’s free-spirited moms (the cannabis subplot involving them is just so out of left field that it works). “Best Summer Ever” features a couple cameos from some of the film’s big name producers, including Maggie Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard, but they never distract from the bright cast of young newcomers.
“Best Summer Ever” features eight original songs (MuMu is one of the cowriters), and they may not all be immediately memorable, but they are peppy and nice to bop along to. The variety of music numbers range from big to intimate, and the show-stopping finale on the football field manages to include not only the entire cast in front of the camera, but those working behind the camera too.
“Best Summer Ever” is corny, sure, but in a charming way, and it’s always apparent that this movie has its heart in the right place. The offscreen vibe is similar to the Mickey and Judy “let’s put on a show” series of backyard musicals: a group of talented people got together with what they had available and made something entertaining with a sweet message. That is admirable in and of itself, but the production’s larger mission to promote inclusivity makes it worth paying attention to.
“Best Summer Ever” will be available to watch on demand and DVD on April 27th. Runtime: 72 minutes.