Review - It’s a Cruel, Cruel Summer With ‘Suntan’

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It’s a Cruel, Cruel Summer With ‘Suntan’

SXSW – Visit Films

Kostis (Makis Papadimitriou) is a middle-aged sad sack who also happens to be a doctor. He arrives on the Greek island of Antiparos around Christmas time when it and its 800 residents resemble more of a way station for the elderly than an island paradise, and he settles into the mundane motions of the job. This isn’t quite the scene he would have chosen for himself, but we suspect that particular choice may have been out of his hands. He makes acquaintances as the weeks pass, but new friendships seem anathema to his preferred daily routine. That changes though with the arrival of summer and the boat-loads of young tourists who follow the sun.

A scooter accident brings Anna (Elli Tringou) and her group of highly-sexualized, eternally distracted friends to his clinic. They’re effortlessly obnoxious, but Kostis puts up with their hjinks to look cool in Anna’s eyes. She’s playful and a little bit flirty, and he falls hard. The group invites him casually into their fold, and Kostis’ doughy, blank stare comes alive. They party, share meals, and play at the beach together, and his affection for her grows, but like the summer itself his good times are destined to end before all of the revelers are ready to say goodbye.

Director/co-writer Argyris Papadimitropoulos’s new film, Suntan, captures this island destination at its two extremes – there’s barely a pulse in the winter months, but the island jolts to life with the energy, cash, and lack of inhibitions of summer’s youth. There’s beauty in the island’s scenery and vitality in the constant motion of the temporarily-ballooned population – and the parade of naked flesh offers something for everyone on the eye candy front – but it’s the slow shift from hopeful to obsessive, from the sun’s brightness to Kostis’ growing darkness that draws our focus.

Kostis isn’t traditionally attractive, but the film doesn’t make that judgement call – to the contrary, the movie makes it clear that everyone appeals to someone, at least while on a hedonistic vacation. Instead it’s Kostis himself who applies his own label, and that low self-worth, when faced with Anna’s fleeting but sincere attention, makes him something of an underdog at first. Papadimitriou’s performance reveals a man who acknowledges his shortcomings but refuses to see them as limitations.

He’s Charlie Brown to Anna’s Lucy, but instead of trying to kick a football he’s hoping to score in an entirely different way. Anna’s “anything goes… while on vacation” attitude seems to make it an achievable dream, and that possibility turns Kostis into a forty year-old Pee Wee from Porky’s – so basically the same age as the actor playing Pee Wee – working hard to make something happen with the girl of his dreams. Papadimitriou has us hopeful for the schlubby Kostis early on as we wish him well keeping up with the youngsters, but the harder he tries to fit in the more painful it becomes to watch. It’s not long though before our fear for him changes into a fear of him.

The film, co-written by Syllas Tzoumerkas (who also co-stars in all his naked glory as Orestis, one of Kostis’ old medical school classmates), wisely leaves more than a few things unsaid. Kostis’ past is something of a blank slate, and when Orestis wonders aloud why he hasn’t heard any news about Kostis since school the lack of an answer actually serves to hint at one. We don’t know what he’s done before, and we don’t know what he’s going to do now – and that uncertainty in the face of clear obsession is frightening.

Suntan feels at times like your pervy uncle has somehow wandered into 1982’s Summer Lovers, and while you know it can’t end well for him or the unclothed youths you still feel compelled to see it through to the end. (On that note, be sure to see it through to the very end, ie post-credits.) Part character drama, part cautionary tale, part marketing for Greece’s Bureau of Tourism, it’s an engaging slowburn of sandy beaches, sex, and sadness. If nothing else, it also teaches you how to remove sand from someone’s eye using only your tongue, so there’s that.

Grade: B

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