Sunday, January 31, 2016

Slamdance ’16: Last Summer

Plenty of divorcing couples have used their kids to inflict pain on each other, but this entitled princeling has been weaponized particularly cruelly. His Japanese mother has lost all custody and visitation rights to her well-heeled western ex-husband. Franky, the helplessly spoiled Kenzaburo (Ken) does not seem like much of a prize, but his mother’s love remains unabated. Unfortunately, she only has four days to say her goodbyes for the next eleven years in Leonardo Guerra Seràgnoli’s Last Summer (trailer here), which screened during the 2016 Slamdance Film Festival.

Although the precise details are never revealed, it is strongly implied mental health struggles and her ex-husband’s wealth brought Naomi to this point. Presumably, those pills she pops in the morning are not vitamins. Clearly, her history was used against her in court and with the four man crew of the luxury yacht provided for Naomi’s farewell visit. Although Alex the captain remains rather open-minded, Eva the steward and Rebecca the surrogate nanny are clearly looking to undermine any last hopes Naomi might have of forging a connection with Ken.

This could have easily been the stuff of Lifetime channel melodrama, but Seràgnoli goes for broke with his rarified art cinema approach and largely pulls it off. Gianfilippo Cortelli’s cinematography has the lush glossiness of a fashion magazine spread that perfectly suits the graceful simplicity of Milena Canonero’s frocks. Canonero’s production design team perfectly conveys the ironically austere vibe of the ultra-chic trappings. (Indeed, the yacht is a trap, for both the aching mother and the problematically passive son).

As stylishly produced as Summer is, the key that makes it work is Rinko Kikuchi’s quiet but violently powerful performance as Naomi. The one-two punch of her vulnerability and beauty is absolutely heart-stopping. This is not a dialogue-heavy film, but you can read it all in her eyes.

Kikuchi also develops some wonderfully ambiguous chemistry with Yorik van Wageningen’s increasingly sympathetic Captain Alex. In fact, the shifting crew dynamics are quite subtly rendered, adding further layers to the hothouse atmosphere. Initially, young Ken Brady does not make much of an impression, but he duly comes out of his shell when Naomi starts to reach his privileged character.

Can you imagine how much this kid will hate his father when he turns eighteen and discovers the old man has been keeping him from his elegant and soulful mother? Seràgnoli and his celebrated co-scripters, Banana Yoshimoto and Italian graphic novelist Igort give us hope it just might come to that eventually, while scrupulously avoiding any phony sentimental cop-outs. Thanks to Kikuchi, it is a lovely little chamber drama. Recommended as a satisfying indulgence for sophisticated audiences, Last Summer screened at this year’s Slamdance, but it is sure to turn up at subsequent festivals given the talent involved.