Set in a village in the English countryside during WWII, Jessica Swale’s debut feature Summerland is one of those schmaltzfests that flatters our modern attitudes by introducing them to our primitive ancestors. The past is reeducated and happy endings are now possible! Never mind that our own reality isn’t some bountiful utopia, or that its improvements over earlier eras when all clothing seemed to be made of wool weren’t always fixable by just increasing the supply of empathy. All that has brought us here, a conventional piece of rural sentimentality, populated with kindly schoolmasters, free-range children, and old ladies whose expressions of disapproval and shock are familiar from all the other dull, lottery-funded British dramas about the English countryside. On the outskirts of this community lives Alice (Gemma Arterton), a lesbian folklorist who wants to be left alone. One day, one of her neighbors shows up with Frank (Lucas Bond), a curly-haired boy who’s been evacuated from London and is now to be housed in her cottage. His father is an RAF pilot; his mother has stayed behind in the city.
This is a surprise to Alice, who never goes to villages committee meetings, and hasn’t read her mail because the local kids — who believe she’s either a witch or a Nazi spy — keep stuffing branches in her letterbox. Her reaction is coldhearted: She doesn’t want the boy living with her. Things don’t improve when she’s told that it will take at least a week to find a new home for Frank. Alice hands him a couple of potatoes and a cut of raw meat for dinner and tells him to cook it himself, then later informs him that heaven doesn’t exist. But really, her humorless demeanor is a long-term side effect of heartbreak over her relationship with Vera (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), which we see in flashbacks to the ’20s and ’30s in which women in costume-store cloche hats and feather scarfs dance. Alice starts to bond with Frank after telling him about her theory that a local legend about a phantom island is in fact a recurring mirage — a phenomenon that only he seems able to see. However, this is not a story about the way children can mistake the escapist fantasies of grown-ups for magic.
The fact that Summerland opens with an older Alice (Penelope Wilton) pounding away at a typewriter in the ’70s should be enough to warn us that we are headed for a cloying epilogue. Sad things happen, followed by a twist that, while not hitting Nicholas Sparks level lows, is of a piece with the movie’s across-the-pond equivalent to the old barns, tree swings, and overall bland desktop wallpaper imagery of the Sparksverse. There’s nothing unpleasant to look at in Summerland, which means that everything will turn out for the better. Swale, who also wrote the screenplay, lets these picturesque qualities carry the movie, occasionally deploying twinkly music and slow-mo to tell us that what we are looking at is as pretty as it seems to be. Homophobia is addressed briefly and racism doesn’t seem to be a factor at all. The above-average cast of adult and child actors do some solid work, but once the plot enters the tearjerker cliché phase, it becomes clear that what we are being offered is just false-feeling nostalgia slowly coating the past with varnish. For all its eager charms and affection, Summerland flattens them to form a dull piece of rural saccharine that’s as about as one-dimensional as a trite postcard.
Summerland is available on VOD
Yes, God, Yes
Offering a title with the exclamatory promise of Yes, God, Yes and opening with a title card with the definition of a tossed salad, the feature directorial debut from Obvious Child writer Karen Maine isn’t short on foreplay. But where her Sundance breakout offered spiky truths wrapped in candid laughs, this SXSW winner is more content to play it safe. A sex comedy that carries what might be the gentlest R-rating in recent memory, Yes, God, Yes is a mostly routine romp through a well-worn genre that fails to ignite a climactic spark. Set in 1999, the film centers on Alice (Natalia Dyer), a sixteen-year-old virgin and naïve Catholic high schooler who’s embarking on the road of sexual awakenings. It’s ignited by multiple VHS viewings of the sex scene in Titanic, when Alice has begun to experience urges she’s unsure how to satisfy, with experimentation with household objects and a dive into a cheesy AOL chat room following. With all of this happening, she’s also plagued at school by a nasty rumor of her involvement in a mystifying sex act, and a faculty that aggressively polices impure thoughts. And it’s before long where she ends up on a lakeside faith retreat camp with everything pumping on all cylinders.
Yet, this is a rather tame film, hinging much of its comedy on the not particularly shocking revelation that there is inherent hypocrisy and a disconnect between the Catholic view of Chasity, and the reality of the human body and behavior. This is certainly not a new discovery, and the film’s observations on these matters are broad and lacking really any kind of bite or insight. As Alice navigates the landscape of her budding attractions, they are narrowly and conventionally defined. And an even odder sense, the film is a little too tame to have much meaning for its target audience of current adolescents who can have any questions answered by reaching no further than their phone, and are fully aware of a much larger spectrum of sexuality than Yes, God, Yes acknowledges. There’s definitely some laughs of both the sex comedy and cringe humor variety, but more crucially, nothing really feels at risk in Yes, God, Yes whether it’s good taste or even Alice’s character arc, which largely consists of validating that her feelings are normal, something she already senses at the start movie. (Maybe it’s just to build towards the film’s big, bland kind of climactic speech?) Maine has said she based the film on her own upbringing, but one wonders at the possibilities had the story been set in the contemporary, where Alice would not only be able to Google “tossed salad” but come across thousands of videos clearly illustrating what it means. And in that process, discover a whole sexual realm that exists beyond the rigid Catholic strictures. But, in the end, that’s not what we got. Mixing some sweetness with a lot of slightness, Yes, God, Yes winds up as a sex dramedy with little edge and material that feels stretched and a tad strained.
Yes, God, Yes is available on VOD