When it Comes to 1970s High School Politics, Comedy is Voted Out



Sun, surf, sand, and swimwear… It’s finally time to put school aside, get with your friends, and hit the beach!  “No more pencils, no more books, no more teachers’ dirty looks….”  It’s the American dream of youthful freedom.  The Beach Boys sang all about it.  The allure is universal.  Aren’t you glad it’s… almost summer?

That last sentence is the poster tagline for director Martin Davidson’s 1978 teen feature, Almost Summer.  Although it flaunts the trappings of 100 drive-in teensploitation cheapies, this would-be horny teenage sun n’ fun programmer is actually the product of a major Hollywood studio.  It’s also not a horny teenage sun n’ fun programmer at all.  It does, however, prominently feature new original songs by The Beach Boys (oddly not credited as such, though they are fully in early-career nostalgia mode) and opens with a wholly misleading beach-comedy opening titles sequence.  Yes, for just a fleeting few minutes, we can indeed be glad it’s almost summer in Almost Summer.

Then, it’s right back to school.  Forget about any hopes of a late-1970s lightweight Frankie & Annette reimagining; it’s time to get down to the brass tacks of wrapping out senior year- and not the kind of tacks that are placed on a teacher’s chair.  No, Davidson’s film places far more emphasis on the “Almost” of the title than the “Summer”.  Summer, or graduation for that matter, doesn’t seem to be on anyone’s mind.  The “American dream” here is not one of youthful freedom, but of cutthroat political strategizing and scheming.  Though prom is slightly on their radar (though mainly as a moneymaking opportunity for mover and shaker Dean, played by a magnetic Thomas Carter), everything in this school revolves around the race for student-body president.  

As such, Almost Summer is best viewed as a kind of version 0.5 of Alexander Payne’s scathing 1999 high school-set political satire, Election.  Bruno Kirby stars as Bobby DeVito, a dead serious strategist fixated on keeping his very ambitious Tracy Flick-esque ex-girlfriend, Christine Alexander (Lee Purcell, who, holy cow, looks like a refined proto-Parker Posey), from certain victory.  When Bobby’s well-groomed candidate is unexpectedly expelled, he scrambles to replace him with an eleventh-hour recruit.  He gets very lucky in discovering Darryl Fitzgerald (John Friedrich), a content, likable nobody who quickly develops ambition of his own.  

Darryl’s improvised introductory speech begins with “You don’t know me, but…”.  Bobby immediately parlays that into Darryl’s tagline, trading on his humble everyman appeal.  Bobby, who also has real money wagered on the election, even stoops to some morally unsound tactics to further manipulate voter sympathies.  Meanwhile, Bobby’s awkward sister Donna (Didi Conn, in old-school metal braces and sporting a very Joyce DeWitt physicality) has the crush of the century on Darryl.  Is he capable of looking beyond his campaign and her own nebbishness to give her a chance?  The prom beckons…

Scorpion Releasing, via Kino Lorber, presents Almost Summer on Blu-ray with a nice new 2K master (as well as the film’s trailer and reversible art).  The film has some wear and tear here and there, but overall, it’s a colorful and tactile trip back to the late 1970s.  Quite nicely and even somewhat unexpectedly, Scorpion and Kino went all in for new supplemental interviews with cast and crew.  Director Martin Davidson describes the origins of the film as two separate teen films that Universal managed to roll into one.  (Which explains a bit).  He also recalls at length the inspired choice to get The Beach Boys to contribute new music, and their very specific process of recording the tunes.  Davidson incorrectly states that drummer Dennis Wilson, who tragically drowned in 1983, was dead by then, which is a little confusing.  He also shares how his wife, Sandy, was granted the chance to be his costume designer.  

Sandy Davidson herself appears for a short interview recollecting and reiterating her husband’s memories of how an imposed big-time costume designer darn near derailed his intended street level aesthetic.  Fortunately, he got his way, and Sandy got a career.  Actors Lee Purcell and Tim Matheson, who play the hot shot couple of the school, also appear for separate interviews, each with nothing but rose-colored memories of their whole Almost Summer experience.  Interestingly, their collective experience included touring with The Beach Boys in support of the film, which yields a few fun memories.  Matheson’s interview turns into an encapsulated retrospective of his whole career.  

Almost Summer isn’t bad, and the observations that it exists as a precursor to later, better teen films such as Fast Times as Ridgemont High are valid.  The fact that it gets caught up in the school politics every bit as much its characters are (as opposed to acknowledging, as Election does, that it’s all, in fact, b.s.) keeps it entirely from being anything on the level of Alexander Payne’s film.  While competently shot, Davidson completely fumbles any aspect of comedy, and painfully misses what could’ve been a very profound satirical mark.  

While the film is obviously the benefactor of the five-year’s-prior success of George Lucas’ ode to teenage summer freedom, American Graffiti, and its studio’s desire to repeat that phenomenon, Almost Summer delves (consciously or not) into a very different, far more cynical aspect of America’s dream of itself.  The film is entirely watchable, every as it’s normally lovable character fall prey to political stress, debts, and money-making.  (Has Bruno Kirby ever been this stern in anything?)  When you spin this disc, you can be glad it’s Almost Summer… even as summer itself never actually arrives for these characters.  For them, there’s no beach on their road ahead.  There’s no irony in this movie other than the fact these kids (all played by obviously too-old actors) are perhaps far better prepared for the real-world political landscape that awaits them as adults.  Perhaps they are to blame for it.