With a title like My Summer of Love, you'd be forgiven for expecting the worst: Maybe an indulgent, big-screen version of a navel-gazing teenage girl's diary, in which said teen drinks wine and smokes cigarettes all afternoon, talks about philosophy and lies in postcoital bliss for hours on end. Turns out you'd only be half-right. This British coming-of-age drama lives up to its title in many respects, but it also shows a dead-on, almost-eerie understanding of behavior and human nature that's wise beyond its lead characters' years.
Young director Pawel Pawlikowski's new film treads much the same ground as last year's explicit but ultimately shallow teen-angst period drama The Dreamers. Both films chart the place where impudent, youthful abandon meets grown-up ennui, and both feature gorgeous, naturalistic camera work. But only Pawlikowski's film manages to transcend its scintillating sexual-awakening subplot to convincingly explore darker feelings: It isn't giving anything away to mention that the film's title ends up being considerably ironic. Teen love isn't all daisies and notebook-scribbling in this languid and dreamy film; the threat of violence lurks around every corner.
The action such as it is takes place in a small town in northern Britain, where the parentless Mona (Natalie Press) lives with her now-fundamentalist ex-con brother Phil (the simmering Paddy Considine). Into her drab existence wanders Tasmin (Emily Blunt), a smart, impulsive brunette who shares an opulent manor with two unhappy, mostly absentee parents. Tasmin and Mona quickly make the house their own, sharing stories of emotional trauma, getting high on the tennis courts and manipulating Ouija boards to creepy effect. Tasmin is constantly goading Mona into acting on her basest impulses, some good (standing up to her brother), some not-so-good (confronting the wife of an older man she's screwed). As in Peter Jackson's brilliant Heavenly Creatures, the girls' breathless, obsessive bond eventually gives way to something resembling love or at least lust and, inevitably, betrayal.
It's the sort of subject matter American indie filmmakers routinely attempt, usually with disappointingly predictable results. Pawlikowski avoids the pitfalls of those films by refusing to box My Summer of Love into any one genre, and by trusting his intuitive cast to drive the plot instead of the other way around. Shooting in almost unnervingly tight close-ups, the director leaves no glance or hesitant breath unnoticed; Mona's tentative romantic relationship with Tasmin is far more realistic than anything in a conventional "coming out" film. Press in particular has a halting, candid style of delivering her lines that makes it seem as if she were plucked off the street; she's like a British, working-class fusion of Chloë Sevigny and Courtney Love. If Blunt seems more pretentious and mannered in comparison, that's only because it's exactly what the story requires.
Whenever things threaten to get a little too heavy, Pawlikowski is content to focus on purely sensual moments, cranking up a hypnotic Goldfrapp song on the sound track, or focusing on Mona's shock of strawberry blond hair as she storms off into the sunset after a particularly bad temper tantrum. My Summer of Love may understand teen angst, but it never wallows in it.
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].