In terms of plot, SXSW Online 2021’s film “Best Summer Ever” is not a unique film by any means. It’s an amalgamation of every single high school romance cliché and trope possible. In particular, the similarities between “Best Summer Ever,” “Grease” and Disney Channel’s “High School Musical” are unmistakable: Both films feature a girl on vacation who forms a connection with a lovable jock who she meets again later at school, not to mention a romantic conflict and a high school mean girl that steals the show. What makes “Best Summer Ever” unique, though, is its representation of people with disabilities.
SXSW Online 2021’s website describes the film as featuring a “fully integrated cast and crew of people with and without disabilities.” This inclusion of people with disabilities is especially meaningful because of the way it is normalized in the movie: The characters are made characters first — not characters with disabilities.
While the representation of people with disabilities is heartening, it is noticeable that there isn’t much racial diversity in the film, with the main character Anthony (Rickey Alexander Wilson, “This Is Us”) being the only person of color featured in a significant way.
The film isn’t fantastic, and it certainly isn’t anything new. Anthony is a football star who really loves to dance. Sage (Shannon DeVido, “Difficult People”), the female lead, is the new girl at school, and soon becomes Anthony’s love interest. Beth (MuMu Rhodes, “Not Fade Away”), the villainous mean girl, is ridiculous in every sense of the word but is somehow the most fun to watch. From licking trophy cases to trying to literally chaining a door closed, everything she does is off the rails and thoroughly enjoyable to witness.
Despite the overused tropes permeating throughout the film, it’s still a fun watch. In a lot of ways, it feels like a Disney Channel Original Movie, just with the slightly out-of-place inclusion of swearing and drugs. Even the songs feel like they’ve been pulled from other movies, with a song that is eerily reminiscent of Gabriella’s “When There Was Me and You” and another that is strikingly similar to Grease’s “Summer Nights.” The songs aren’t great, but they aren’t horrible either. They serve their purpose in the way that any musical’s songs do: They move the story along.
Alongside the representation of the disabled community, another highlight of the film is its cast. Wilson in particular has a very charismatic, charming magnetism on-screen as Anthony. I wouldn’t be surprised if he became the new teenage rom-com love interest in many new films — maybe the new and improved Noah Centineo?
DeVido portrays a realistic, sarcastic high schooler with ease; her background as a comedian shows up in little eye-rolling moments and quips. And Rhodes’s Beth really is a newer, crazier Sharpay Evans. Though she tragically lacks Sharpay’s iconic fashion sense, she makes up for it with excessive amounts of purple eyeliner, an antagonist anthem and amazing selfie-taking skills.
There are also some fun cameos: Maggie Gyllenhaal (“The Dark Knight,” “Crazy Heart”), an executive producer of the film, appears as a reporter, and Benjamin Bratt (“Clear and Present Danger”) is featured with his daughter, who also happens to have physical disabilities.
Despite its shortcomings, people should watch “Best Summer Ever,” if only to support the filmmakers, cast and crew that broke boundaries with their integration of people with and without disabilities.
As someone with a relative who has cerebral palsy, seeing a film with such normalized representation of disabilities was amazing and meaningful to me, and I know it will impact others similarly. This film is really important, regardless of its overused plot. It’s definitely worth a watch.
Film Beat Editor Sabriya Imami can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.