Screenplay : Eleanor Perry (based on the novel by Evan Hunter)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1969
Stars : Barbara Hershey (Sandy), Richard Thomas (Peter), Bruce Davison (Dan), Catherine Burns (Rhoda)
So many films about adolescents are vapid, banal affairs, treating their subjects either as dull, cardboard cutouts with no emotions, or gross caricatures of unappealing stereotypes. Somewhere along the line a mentality developed that adolescents are unimportant, and their lives are shallow and unworthy of close examination.
But every once in a while, a film comes along that bucks these ideas, and Frank Perry's little-seen 1969 film "Last Summer" is one of them. It defies the trend by using teenagers, who are complex, deeply-felt individuals, to explore some basic aspects of humanity. "Last Summer" digs into themes of friendship, the abuse of power, and most importantly, how the worst evil can reside in the most unlikely places. In the end, this film is a downer, with few good things to say about most of its characters or humanity in general, but it portrays its subjects skillfully and effectively. It's as disturbing as it is intriguing.
"Last Summer" has close ties to William Golding's classic 1954 novel "Lord of the Flies," which also explored the dark side of adolescents. In his novel, Golding set a group of British schoolchildren alone on a desert island, and allowed them to sink into primal savagery once they were freed of cvilized rules. Golding's point was that humans are inherently evil creatures, and it is only the confines of society that keep us from reverting to animals.
Taking place during the hot summer months on Fire Island in New York, "Last Summer" has similar themes at its heart, replacing the desert island with a deserted beach. Based on the novel by Evan Hunter, it tells the tale of four teenagers: Sandy (Barbara Hershey), Peter (Richard Thomas), Dan (Bruce Davison), and Rhoda (Catherine Burns in an Oscar-nominated role). For the most part, these four teenagers are the only characters in the film, and they live with little or no restraint save what they impose on themselves. Sandy's parents are shown once or twice, but they have little or no control over her actions.
It is important to note that these are seemingly normal kids, as all-American as apple pie. Sandy is beautiful and fiercely independent, perhaps a reflection of the women's movement, which was gathering steam in the late sixties. Peter and Dan are the typical, good-looking male buddies, unable to do anything without each other. Together they make a perfect, tanned threesome, spending their days on the beach in carefree abandon. Summer, that youthful symbol of freedom from teachers and responsibility, forms a perfect backdrop for their antics. But everything begins to change when Rhoda becomes involved.
Rhoda, unlike the other three, isn't beautiful. She is chunky and kind of clumsy, too intellectual for her own good. She has a bad penchant for talking too much about her confused emotions, something the other three don't admit because it makes them look weak. Rhoda is an easy target for ridicule, and although the other three often succumb to the temptations, they always manage to draw the line. Although Rhoda often annoys them, they have an inner sympathy for her that allows them to accept her, even if it's on limited terms.
Most of the film is a slightly daring exploration of teenage angst, complete with sexual curiosity and confusion, drug experimentation, and revealing games of Truth or Dare. The film sets up several scenes where the kids could break the boundaries, but they never do. Peter and Dan continually talk about how they want to have sex with Sandy, but they never seem to get up the nerve to ask her, even though she seems to be more than willing. You can see their imminent desire to break free of social restrictions, but there's always one last strand holding them back.
But then something both shocking and disturbingly expected happens in the last ten minutes of the film. A sudden act of violence that, within the context of the story, makes perfect sense. It's shocking because we realize the whole film has been building up to this one horrible event. Far from a seemingly random act of violence, it is the result of tensions and frustrations accumulated throughout the previous two hours. Just like the children in "Lord of the Flies," these unrestrained teenagers finally give into their intrinsic evil, and the results are more than they are willing to accept.
The film ends with them walking up the beach, the deadened look of innocence destroyed -- not just lost -- etched on their faces. As the credits begin to roll, we finally understand the full implications of the title "Last Summer" -- this was the last summer they lived as innocents, and for their rest of their lives they will be forced to live under the haunting weight of a terrible secret, made all the worse because they brought it on themselves.
Copyright © 1997 James Kendrick