‘Summerland’ Review: A chill road trip without a destination

This voyage to a music festival is pleasant and aggressively pointless.

Bray, Oliver, and Stacey walk the streets of San Francisco.
(Image: © First Look Films)

What to Watch Verdict

'Summerland' is an inoffensive and nominally fun way to spend an hour and change.


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    🎶Likeable leads.

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    🎶Chill hangout vibe.

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    🎶Moments of distinct visual flourish.


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    🎶Character arcs fall flat.

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    🎶Feels like there are jokes missing.

Say whatever else you want about Summerland, but it is undoubtedly a film with a lot of heart. The story of three friends’ road trip to a remote music festival is easy pickings for a chilled out vibe, wacky shenanigans, and some wide-eyed virtual tourism of the American West. Summerland does deliver on the promise of that premise, but this meager eighty-minute waif of a film somehow pads for time while also failing to capitalize on its characters so that their arcs feel self-contained and satisfying. It’s a cute movie, but being cute only gets you so far before you run out of gas.

Bray (Chris Ball) is a gay man who has recently gotten himself entangled in a Christian dating site, posing as a woman named Victoria to get closer to Shawn (Dylan Playfair), whom Bray assumes is closeted. Bray plans to meet Shawn at the music festival Summerland, along with his best friend Oliver (Rory J. Saper). However, because Oliver’s about to be deported back to England on an expired visa, he insists on bringing his girlfriend Stacey (Maddie Phillips) along on the trip. There’s just one problem: Bray was using pictures of Stacey to play the part of Victoria.

This premise would seem to indicate lots of who’s who absurdity at the festival itself, but Summerland is strangely unconcerned with the ultimate endgame of its set-up, instead opting into a hangout road movie vibe that's comprised of little comedic vignettes that only construct a plot insomuch as they take place chronologically. This isn’t in itself a bad thing, as the cast is uniformly charming and desirable to chill out with, and the situations they find themselves in are certainly amusing in their own right. Shawn’s drug dealer insists on making the hand-off in vehicles moving ninety miles per hour. The group detours to a camping spot to do mushrooms, commune with nature, and distort their realities. A party at a random gay man’s house transports Bray into a black void of intense seduction. These moments are portrayed with a creative flourish from directorial duo Lankyboy that show off a talent for making individual moments pop with visual distinction.

However, they also signal a lack of consistency from the directors as the film feels more like a conceptual showcase for their talents than a cohesive story. The vignette nature of the film isn’t a problem, but the complete disregard for satisfactorily resolving the plot is. Bray often feels like a passive observer for being the character set up as the protagonist, and though a lot of lip service is paid to how Bray needs to learn to love himself, it doesn’t quite gel with his story of willfully deceiving another person to get him to realize his homosexuality. Strangely, Shawn and Stacey are given much clearer narrative focus, yet their arcs similarly peter out in ways that don’t actually address their conflicts, instead opting for a non-ending that doesn’t show any of the principal characters growing or changing from the experience they shared together.

It’s also worth noting that for as mildly amusing as the film as a whole is, it also feels like there are jokes missing from the established framework. There are shots that will explicitly set up a comedic situation, such as a luchador with a giant plank of wood robbing a convenience store while Bray and Shawn bail. So when they see a guy carrying an identical plank in the next scene, it seems like a set-up for at least a funny line. But then there’s nothing. No joke. Moving on. The film is littered with moments like this, which either speaks to sacrifices to pacing or to unusable footage, but the fact that it’s noticeable in the final product is at best strange, and at worst unforgivably sloppy.

On the whole, Summerland is an inoffensive and nominally fun way to spend an hour and change. It’s never exceedingly funny, and its inconsistencies are glaring, but the characters and situations are charming enough that you can’t begrudge the film for wanting to take us on this tour of aimless youth, even if it is functionally just a directors’ reel for Lankyboy’s specific talents. I hope they remember to use those talents to make a complete movie next time.

Summerland will be available on VOD on September 14, 2020.

Leigh Monson

Leigh Monson has been a professional film critic and writer for six years, with bylines at Birth.Movies.Death., SlashFilm and Polygon. Attorney by day, cinephile by night and delicious snack by mid-afternoon, Leigh loves queer cinema and deconstructing genre tropes. If you like insights into recent films and love stupid puns, you can follow them on Twitter.