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Sundance 2015: Summer of Sangaile Suggests First Love Is a Journey, Not a Destination

By  · Published on January 24th, 2015

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Day one of Sundance (or of any film festival really) is often reserved for getting your bearings, seeing old faces and making new friends. There are still movies of course, but they’re usually limited to a small handful of titles. Such is the case at this year’s Sundance where four movies premiered Thursday night to a mixed bag of reactions. Two of the films were documentaries – What Happened, Miss Simone? and How to Change the World – so obviously I didn’t see either of those. (Sorry Chris.)

Instead, I saw both of the night’s narrative features, and while they couldn’t have been more different in tone, style and plot they did share one trait. Summer of Sangaile and The Bronze (read Kate’s spot-on review here) are both about a self-centered and lost young woman who finds herself through the help and friendship of another young woman. One of the films features an intimate and romantic relationship while the other focuses more on a mentor and student dynamic, but both explore the ins and outs and ups and downs of female friendship.

Unfortunately neither film is fantastic, and one of them doesn’t even reach the level of good. (It’s The Bronze. The Bronze is not good.)

Sangaile (Julija Steponaityte) is a teen vacationing in Lithuania with her parents, and while they host dinner parties and romp nude through the garden Sangaile has discovered a passion for stunt planes. She watches in awe as a pilot pushes his single-prop plane to the limits, but when a local girl named Auste (Aiste Dirziute) secures a free ride for her in one of the flying machines Sangaile quickly flees the scene. Undeterred, Auste invites the newcomer to join her and some friends for a day at the beach, and as time passes it becomes clear that there’s an electric energy between the two girls. Auste discovers some of Sangaile’s secrets – she suffers from vertigo, she’s a cutter – and through affection, attention and creativity helps move Sangaile towards higher emotional and physical realms.

It’s perhaps too cynical to say that this film, complete with two, beautiful young women engaged in sensuously shot acts of carnal desire, owes Blue Is the Warmest Color for its existence, but even if that was the case writer/director Alante Kavaite levels a far more honest eye upon the girls’ lovemaking than Abdellatif Kechiche’s animalistic male gaze managed in that (rightfully) acclaimed French film. Her focus is more on playfulness and erotic antics that don’t require aggressive scissoring, and she devotes even more time to the emotional journey.

Sangaile’s bedroom is devoid of anything but the necessities, and her desires – whether it be to touch the sky or to touch someone she truly loves – are kept in check. That changes with Auste’s arrival as she sets about challenging her, bolstering her confidence and showing her what’s possible when you open yourself up to risks. It’s a gentle but essential push, from one woman to another, and it’s amplified by the sight of another woman (her mother) whose dreams have long since passed her by.

The film’s emotion pours from the screen through the two lead performers (Dirziute in particular is a marvel), and the cinematography keeps pace with stunningly photographed sequences of the girls, the trees beneath us and the screaming maneuvering of the stunt plane. Sound design is equally affecting as a power station’s hum, first associated with an unmemorable sexual fumbling, works its way into the score. A handful of seemingly innocuous scenes suddenly take on an ominous tone leaving viewers uncertain of what’s to come.

It’s frequently mesmerizing to the senses, but that beauty is hampered by a narrative that doesn’t quite congeal. The beats are there, and the film ends strong – once it eventually ends, as this 90 minute film feels a bit longer – but there’s too much rambling for us to get a firm lock on Sangaile’s character. It’s ultimately decipherable and far from a mystery, but the filler detracts from watching the dynamic between these two grow and shift over time.

Those narrative issues are undeniable, but there’s an emotional and visual current at work here that leaves feelings and images floating in your head. Small things like Auste glancing at Sangaile’s exposed neck or the camera’s silent rise above the trees (possibly via drone-mounted camera?) and big things like acts of razor-sharp aggression or the powerful feats of flight seen from the ground and the sky, but mostly it’s the ending’s devotion to honesty and heart that refuses to vacate your mind.

The Upside: Gorgeous photography filled with beauty and symbolism; strong sound design and score; lead performances impress; honest ending

The Downside: Some unnecessary time spent with boy subplot;

On the Side: This is Aiste Dirziute’s film debut.

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.