Review: ‘Summer of Sangaile’ is a gorgeous but oh-so-familiar tale of young love

PARK CITY – It's probably somewhat remarkable that in 2015 a tale of summer romance between two teenage girls feels awfully familiar. Since gay-themed indies began to increase in notoriety in the '90s, there have been many of these dramas set both stateside and overseas. Director Alanté Kavaïté has a unique and talented eye, but she can only do so much to make this compelling material beyond its aesthetic charms.

Our heroine is Sangaile (Julija Steponaityte), a 17-year-old spending the summer holiday with her parents in the Lithuanian countryside. We first meet her as she watches a stunt pilot's exploits at a local air show. She catches the eye of Auste (a wonderful Aiste Dirziute) who fixes a raffle so that Sangaile can get a free ride in the stunt plane. Sangaile will have nothing of it, though, and sullenly walks off, leaving a perplexed Auste to wonder how she can charm her. Immediately, the audience discovers that Sangaille has been cutting herself (her parents seemingly oblivious to it all) and her sparse room, plain clothes and dour mood inform us she's got a lot on her mind.  Eventually and perhaps out of boredom, Sangaile succumbs to Auste's powers of persuasion and begins to hang out with her circle of friends. This leads to a one-time fling with a blonde boy (probably unnecessary), but Auste finds ways to seduce her and, soon, the two find themselves in passionate love (or as much in love as two teenagers can be). 

The film's central conflict and Sangaile's arc's are, unfortunately, thin. Sangaile has a calling to be a stunt pilot, but suffers from vertigo. If this is the only reason she's been cutting herself the story doesn't make that clear, but she might have some issues understanding her mother as well (a famous ballerina who doesn't think she's as tough as her namesake). Why Sundance likely chose “Summer” as one of its opening night films is because of Kavaïté's impressive cinematic vision.

Working in conjunction with cinematographer Dominique Colin, Kavaïté weaves a wonderful web of truly tantalizing images. Unlike, say, “Blue is the Warmest Color,” which still took female beauty from a male point of view, Kavaïté clearly knows the parts of a woman's body that would find Auste falling head over heels for Sangaile. She'll hold the camera on her face as we see the wind slowly brush the minuscule hairs on her cheek. Or, cut to an extreme close-up on a nipple so the natural abrasion bumps are visible. And when the two leads are together sexually, it certainly feels more natural than the aforementioned Cannes winner.

Kavaïté and Colin also work wonders using either a helicopter or a drone to get some stunning aerial POV shots throughout the picture. She uses this technique to convey Sangaile's vertigo without using any familiar, unsteady camerawork you'd expect. It also, gradually, communicates Sangaile's passion to fly and to soar in the sky.  

Early on, Kavaïté also stages some seductive scenes of teenagers enjoying their summer freedom that evokes, whether intentional or not, a slight inspiration from Alfonso Cuarón's “Y Tu Mamá También.” This much-needed energy dissipates, however, when Auste's friends disappear from view and the film focuses primarily on whatever drama Sangaile is getting herself through.

Considering the story limitations, it's remarkable, even hours after seeing the picture, how many images Kavaïté is able to compose that stick in your head. We only wish the final product had us rooting for or even caring what happens to Sangaile and Auste before the credits roll.