In 1953, Morris Engel made a film called Little Fugitive. It was about a boy who thought he had killed his older brother and ran off to Coney Island to live on his own. It’s a charming piece (even though Engel was more interested in capturing the realism of this little boy in this big world than in having a tight and well rehearsed story) that bucked the trends of cinema at that time. Francois Truffaut, famous director of the French New Wave, credited Engel for helping begin this new style that took over European cinema from 1958 to 1964. Their approach was low budget and avant-garde. They dismissed traditional narrative and plots in place of more introspective and existential themes. This, in turn, then began influencing American filmmakers and starting around the mid 60s the American New Wave, or New Hollywood, began and implemented all the same techniques, most with more solid plot lines and great results. Such films as The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde, Easy Rider and Midnight Cowboy came out of this era; pieces again more interested in mood and theme, outside of the studio system, but speaking to the culture of that day. The film Summer Children, which was recently discovered, restored and is now showing in a limited release, was directed by James Bruner and written by Norman Handelsman (neither of whom had done a movie before nor done one since) is an early example of this New Hollywood style with all its greatness and shortcomings.
Summer Children is the story of a group of friends who set off from the California beach scene to spend a day on the island of Catalina. Their friendship is tested and broken over that 24 hour period as a new and elusive girl is introduced into their group and all the trappings of being a teenager in the 60s are brought to bare upon them.
From a highlight point, Vilmos Zsigmond, the cinematographer on this film who went on to be Oscar nominated for The Deer Hunter, The River and The Black Dahlia, and who won the Oscar for Close Encounters of the Third Kind, shot it beautifully. There are shots captured here that are breathtaking to behold. Fairly quickly into the film it becomes apparent why Vilmos was hired on to do this film — not only for his skill but also to bring that European New Wave style that director Bruner was obviously going for. This film mixes the beach culture films (beach bunnies, crazy dances, people saying things like “Groovy” and “Daddy-o”) with the French New Wave moodiness and lackadaisical pace. It may have worked too, but there were a few things stacked against it that were insurmountable.
First and foremost is the script by Norman Handelsman. With lines like, “That bed sure makes me think of the Golden Rule. Do unto others . . .” it would be a chore for most trained actors to make it look natural and not comical. However, these actors were all fairly new to the art and could not make much of anything look natural. There are looks, long languid looks, between some of the actors that were intended to be full of meaning and intent but come across as just blank and silly. Again, a lot of the people involved in this went on to very fruitful careers in the film industry, so I’m pointing my finger at the fact that these people were in their salad days when they made this movie.
I am not a fan of the French New Wave. I like story, good and hearty, with characters that leap off the screen and confront me with their problems and emotions — those morose, slice of life, cinema verité films just don’t do it for me. Therefore, admittedly, I wasn’t necessarily the best audience for this film. It attempts to show a loss of innocence, although it felt to me that these teens were not so innocent to begin with. That said, I did like that Summer Children did try to have a bit of a plot as well as some arcs for the characters to travel, short and ill planned as they may be.