Home » Arthouse Report » My Summer as a Goth
         

My Summer as a Goth

I’m still so far behind on my watch list that it’s insanely daunting, but tonight afforded me an opportunity for something I dearly wish I could cover more often: A true independent film. A movie without any big-name stars or even middle-tier stars. A film with no distributor, not even a perennial indie safe haven like A24 or Annapurna. A film with a budget that didn’t even crack a million dollars — post-production was funded through a crowdfunding campaign that raised all of $10,000.

Oh, and the film was set and shot in Portland. Always a surefire way to my heart.

My Summer as a Goth comes to us from director Tara Johnson-Medinger, she who took over and re-launched the Portland Oregon Women’s Film Festival (the POW Film Fest, for short) in 2008. The following year, she co-founded the Portland chapter of Women in Film. Put simply, this is a professional who’s built her career on getting more women involved in cinema, and this project was very clearly built toward that end.

Johnson-Medinger also co-wrote the script, alongside childhood friend Brandon Lee Roberts. The film is semi-autobiographical, a fictionalized portrayal of their own coming of age in Salem. (Like the boring state capitol of Oregon, not the barbaric witch trials.) Let’s take it from the top, shall we?

This is the story of Joey, played by Natalie Shershow. She just wrapped up tenth grade, her father recently passed away, and her mother (Carissa, played by Sarah Overman) is going on a book tour. Thus Joey is heading out to spend the summer with her grandparents, played by Fayra Teeters and Jonas Israel. (Full disclosure: I’ve had the pleasure to meet Jonas multiple times in the local Portland theatre scene. He’s a gifted comic actor and a really sweet guy.)

Let’s pause for a moment. Joey is a teenage girl between school grades, and she just lost her father. That’s at least three massive life transitions right there. And at this exact moment in time, when she needs stability the most, she’s spending the summer away from her home, away from her friends, and her mom is off touring the country. Yes, it helps that Joey’s grandparents are more permissive and hip than your typical boomers, but they’re still not what she really needs right now.

Enter Victor (Jack Levis), the goth boy living next door. Joey is pretty much immediately swept away by this handsome and charming iconoclast, and Victor graciously agrees to introduce her to the goth lifestyle and all his kooky friends. All she has to do is dress like he tells her to, fix her makeup when he tells her to, go where he tells her to go, implicitly demanding complete obedience even when he ghosts her…

…I’m sorry, could you hear me over all those alarm bells going off? Just checking.

Yeah, there’s only one way this could possibly end, and that predictability drags the film down a bit. On the other hand, that’s kind of the point. Joey is a teenage girl in a bad place, and she’s looking for something new and exciting to raise her spirits. So she throws herself into an ill-advised fling that’s destined to end in heartbreak, no matter how many glaringly obvious warning signs come her way. We’ve all been there, especially at that age.

It certainly helps that Victor is perfectly, beautifully played as a charismatic and manipulative asshole. He’s more than smart enough and composed enough to give the impression that there might be something going on aside from the clothes and makeup, which makes it all the more heartbreaking to discover that no, his personality really is only skin-deep. It’s an extremely delicate balance, and Levis has it nailed.

It’s entirely understandable why Joey would fall for this guy, but perhaps more importantly, it’s understandable why she’d try her hand at a goth phase. From the very first scene, we see that Joey is preoccupied with death (specifically her father’s death), she’s a typical teenage girl in the process of trying to figure out who she is, and she keeps everyone at arm’s length with a snarky sense of humor. On paper, she sounds like perfect goth material.

With all of that said, I want to make it perfectly clear that the filmmakers obviously knew what they were doing with regards to portraying goths on film. It’s important to note that while other characters make fun of our characters for how they act and dress (Seriously, how could they not?) the goth aesthetic and lifestyle are never treated as jokes in themselves. For all the heartbreak and disappointment that Joey is destined for, the filmmakers are very clear in showing the poetry, the beauty, and the creativity inherent in goth culture. It’s a means for Joey to break the mold and discover her own unique aesthetic and identity, making her summer phase a net positive.

Even so, there comes a point when Joey is harshly reminded that there are many goths who take this whole thing extremely seriously. Vincent and his crew routinely hobknob with committed lifelong goths who’ve built their identities and lives around the goth lifestyle. The kind of hardcore goths who would look at Joey — who’s only been in the lifestyle for a couple of months — and brush her off as a poser. But even if Joey is relatively new to all of this, does that make her a poser? This brings us back to the central question: Who are you, Joey? What are you?

Put simply, the filmmakers portray goths in an authentic and human way, helping the audience understand the appeal without turning a blind eye to the drawbacks. Nicely done.

Of course all due credit must be given to Natalie Shershow, here delivering a perfectly charming lead performance. Major kudos are due for playing a moody and rebellious teenager without ever once grating the nerves or losing audience sympathy. Her comic timing is marvelous, but she also delivers the necessary pathos.

This is most especially visible in Joey’s relationship with her mother. It’s perfectly clear that Joey feels betrayed and neglected by her mom, who’s off on her book tour while Joey needs her most. The two of them are constantly stuck playing phone tag, such that they’re never available when they need each other. As a direct result, Joey ends up taking a lot of her grief out on her mother. It’s harsh, but understandable.

On the other hand, Joey never once stops to think about how her mom must be feeling. As if she isn’t mourning her husband every bit as much as Joey is mourning her father. As if she doesn’t have to work twice as hard now that they’ve gone from a double-income household to a single-income. The whole time Joey is throwing herself into a summer fling and a goth phase to distract from her pain, she never once stops to think that maybe her mom is immersing herself in her work for the same reason.

Of course, none of this necessarily makes Joey or her mom unsympathetic. They’re just stubborn and incapable of communicating with each other, not uncommon between mothers and teenage daughters. And again, they’re both so deep in mourning and dealing with so many emotions that they don’t know what to do with themselves or each other.

Then we have Joey’s grandparents. These two strike a fine balance in which they’re constantly struggling with the question of how much freedom to give Joey. On the one hand, they understand that Joey is going to experiment. They know she’s going to stay out late, go partying, have some alcohol, all that stuff. On the other hand, they clearly see where things are going with Victor. They know that things are going to go badly, and they want to make sure she stays safe.

(Side note: I was nicely impressed with how sex-positive the film is. Never once do we ever hear “Don’t have sex” from Joey’s mom or grandparents, it’s always “use protection”. Hell, even as skeevy and manipulative as Victor is, he’s very clearly good enough to take “no” for an answer.)

And lest we forget, Joey’s grandparents are presumably mourning for their son-in-law as well. They want to spend time with their granddaughter, and they want to be there for her in this fragile and emotional time. They might not be entirely fluent in her language, granted, but they’re very clearly putting in all the effort they possibly can.

It’s deeply heartwarming, and actually quite funny. Jonas has a finely honed dry wit that pays all sorts of dividends here, and his comic interplay with Fayra Teeters is adorable.

Oh, and as you might expect from a film about goths, the soundtrack kicks ass. Can’t forget about that part.

With all of that said, this movie’s got problems. Wow, does this movie have problems.

First and foremost is Antonio, a random teenaged punk played by Eduardo Reyes. I’m sorry to say that Reyes’ acting is comparatively wooden and his chemistry with Shershow is nowhere near where it needed to be. Even worse than that, Antonio had a nasty habit of appearing exactly where the plot needed him to be, even when he had no business being there. Granted, the filmmakers try to hand-wave that away, but it’s not enough — his appearances are still flimsy and contrived as all hell. As a direct result, he doesn’t really register as an actual person so much as he resembles a plot device.

Speaking of which, there’s the matter of Pen and Cob, respectively played by Jenny White and Carter Allen. These two lovers are goths eternally bound by blood oath, always looking for cutesy goth names for their band. That’s as much as these characters get. Beyond that, they’re very clearly not as hardcore goth as Victor and yet they’re more goth than Joey, falling into this nondescript middle ground between them. The end result is that they work well enough as comic relief and not so much as actual people.

Molly (Rachelle Henry) doesn’t even get that much. She’s Joey’s best friend, she shows up in the back half to warn Joey that Victor is bad news, and that’s basically it. She’s a two-dimensional character with a one-dimensional love interest, and that’s nowhere near enough to make for anything memorable.

Then we have the matter of Pandora, played by Sophie Giberson. She’s the beautiful full-fledged goth that Joey can only pretend to be. She’s not developed any further than that, but she doesn’t really need to be either, so that works out okay.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the fight scene roughly half an hour in. To be perfectly blunt, it’s pathetic. The camera is moving every which way, the editing is all over the place, and it’s over in five seconds before anyone can figure out what happened. What a mess.

Last but not least, the film suffers for lack of a clear climax. There’s no one moment that feels like all or even most of the plotlines all coming to a head. This is especially frustrating because — without getting too deep into spoilers — there are a few moments that feel like they could’ve fit the bill. Joey gets her final confrontation with Victor, and she does inevitably get a shouting match with her mother, but neither of those feel appropriately painful enough, huge enough, or satisfying enough to be a worthy climax. And if the filmmakers had gone just a little bit further, they easily could have been. Damn shame.

Yet even with all of these glaring flaws, I still had a good time with My Summer as a Goth. It’s an exceedingly charming film, more than heartfelt enough to make for a compelling coming-of-age tale. The leading performances are more than solid enough to carry the weaker supporting turns, and the filmmakers’ sense of humor is sharp enough to balance out the weaker moments of storytelling. While some of the characters aren’t very well-developed, the film rings beautifully authentic with regards to Joey’s central development arc, where it really counts.

Keep an eye on the website and social media pages for further news. If it comes to a theater or a streaming service near you, check it out.

Leave a Reply