What to Watch: Summer Movie Nostalgia
As July rolls into August and the heat index pushes 100, all anyone should be doing is sitting inside, blasting the A/C, and pumping up the volume on the TV. For this week’s What to Watch, the Stream Queens invite you to dip your toe into this wistful pool of summer movie nostalgia. We’re breaking down these coming-of-age classics, set between 1962 and 1987, to recapture the comforting feelings of summers spent in an age untouched by social media, WiFi, and iPhones.
1962: The greatest summer of Scotty Smalls’ life. An earnest egghead, “Smalls” moves to a new town at the end of 5th grade with his mom and new step-dad. Thanks to the kindness of neighborhood legend Benny “The Jet” Rodriguez, Smalls finds himself on a baseball field for the first time in his life – dressed in a crisp button-down, pleated pants, and a brim on his hat that’s just slightly too long. Before long, Smalls is accepted into the Sandlot gang, where everyone goes by a nickname and they spend each summer day playing pick-up baseball, avoiding “the Beast” the massive, man-eating urban legend living just beyond the fence behind the sandlot. An adult Smalls, now a baseball announcer, narrates the story of how he got the gang into the biggest “pickle” they’d ever been in – losing an autographed Babe Ruth ball to the Beast. The backdrop of the movie is all-Americana – tree-lined suburban streets, milkmen deliveries, block parties, and baseballs that cost a few nickels at the corner drug store. Through Smalls, Benny, and the rest of the gang, the film allows you to appreciate the pure joy and adventure of just being a kid.
Set in the summer of 1963, the idealistic and naïve Frances “Baby” Houseman joins her parents and sister for a summer at a family resort in the Catskills. The film quickly sets up the dichotomy of the haves and have-nots and the social hierarchy at Kellerman’s: the Ivy League educated wait staff and management are set up with the daughters of guests, while the blue-collar “entertainment staff” are warned to stay far away. But Baby stumbles upon the dancer’s cabins, steeped up in the hills, where they drink and grind to the latest music far removed from the family foxtrot in the main ballroom. When dancer Penny may lose her extra income from a mambo gig at a nearby hotel) because she’s “in trouble” (‘60s for pregnant), Baby steps up and solves both problems: she asks her prominent doctor father for the money for Penny’s abortion, while learning the routine from older bad boy Johnny Castle (Swayze, at peak Swayze) to fill in. Romance ensues between teacher Johnny, from the wrong side of the tracks, and student Baby, despite the disapproval of her father and their real lives on opposite sides of the tracks.
Now and Then
In the summer of 1970, actual 90’s pre-teen goddesses Christina Ricci and Thora Birch are part of a suburban girl gang who live in suburban sprawl, charmingly named the Gaslight Addition, in Shelby, IN. Narrated by a chain-smoking Demi Moore as one of the girls all grown up, the group is reuniting for the birth of idealist Chrissy’s first child in their old hometown. The opening credits roll over a montage of the girls’ successes over the intervening decades – medical degrees earned, sci-fi novels written, Oscars awarded – just the stuff all of our childhood friends got up to since graduation. Back to 1970: Sensitive Samantha is dealing with her parents’ divorce and the trickle-down of mod fashion to Indiana all the way to her newly single mother. Roberta is trying to navigate oncoming signs of puberty growing up with her widowed father and brothers (she tapes down her boobs). Teeny is ignored by her hard-partying Country Clubber parents, and Chrissy’s just trying to understand the birds and the bees (or the hose and the garden). The girls experiment with the paranormal, holding a séance in the local cemetery and uncovering the mystery of a young boy who died decades earlier. However, the movie’s strengths lay much more in the small and wistful moments of an idealized adolescence: saving money to buy a tree house, games of pickup softball and Red Rover, a first kiss on a porch swing as The Guess Who plays softly in the background and laundry sways on the line in the cool summer air.
Precocious hypochondriac Vada Sultanfuss is the daughter of a sweet but clueless widower who runs a funeral parlor out of the family home in 1972 small-town Pennsylvania. Vada doesn’t fit in with girls her age, which isn’t surprising, considering she has read War & Peace in its entirety and enrolls in a continuing-ed class in creative writing as an 11-year old. She prefers running around with the sweet, observant nerd Thomas J: fishing, tree-climbing, riding bikes, “running away” to the neighborhood woods, practicing a kiss to see “what the big deal” is. The summer proves full of lessons for Vada, from an ill-fated crush on her favorite teacher, to her father dating for the first time, and ultimately a profound loss when the daily death toll of the family funeral business becomes real and permanent for the first time. A window into a young girl grappling with love, life, death, and vulnerability along with her first period.
Dazed and Confused
It’s the last day of school in 1976, and school is almost out for summer. QB1 and big man on campus Randall “Pink” Floyd is the center of the social sphere in small-town Texas, and the film introduces his high school universe as Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion” plays over the opening sequence. Kids roll joints, sit in pick-up beds, hang out by the lockers, and cruise around the parking lot in classic 70’s cars. This is also perhaps why I thought the song was called “Wheels in Motion” for several years. All of the action takes place the night school has let out for the summer. In centering his film on this specific night, Linklater captures the very specific feelings of freedom and possibility that exist as a teenager with very few responsibilities and a whole limitless summer ahead of you. Especially as seen through the prism of 2 outsiders – freshmen – invited along for the ride after enduring gender-specific hazing incidents. The boys are subjected to paddling, while the girls are tarred, feathered and made to suck pacifiers and sizzle like bacon. Cameos include a young Affleck, as sadistic paddle-wielding bully O’Bannion, and the man himself, Matthew McConaughey, in a career-defining role as Wooderson, the “alright, alright, alright”-drawling townie who loves those high school girls, man.
It’s 1987 and James Brennan is a self-described romantic; a nerdy virgin graduating from a prestigious college on the precipice of a bright future ahead of him. However, after his parents reveal that his father’s demotion downgrades them from upper to middle class, James must cancel his trip to “the Continent” and reconsider his plans for graduate school in Columbia. Forced to get a job manning the game booths at his hometown amusement park, he’s introduced to a colorful cast of characters: Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader as the norm-core couple managing the park, Martin Starr at his deadpan finest as a pipe-smoking, Gogol-reading fellow games employee Joel, Ryan Reynolds as the too-cool married maintenance man Connell living off of the fake legend of having jammed Lou Reed to scam on girls, and manic pixie dream girl Kristen Stewart. This is arguably the most likeable Eisenberg and Stewart have ever been – their awkwardness comes off as slyly endearing rather than grating. A classic teen tale of not living up to anyone else’s expectation. To quote Stewart’s Em, “Fuck that, right?”
The Sandlot, Dirty Dancing, and My Girl are now streaming on Netflix. Adventureland is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.