As an adolescent, acceptance into your peer group is always an undeniable desire, rejection from the group scars you for life. Few films broach this topic as compelling and intelligently as “Last Summer.” Based on a novel by Evan Hunter (The Blackboard Jungle), “Last Summer” is the story of three middle class teenagers who spend a summer on Fire Island with their parents, though the parents are never seen. Sandy (Barbara Hershey), a beautiful dark longhaired girl is highly intelligent and while she expresses a sexual confidence her actual experience is limited. The two boys, Peter (Richard Thomas) and Dan (Bruce Davison) are sexually less sure of themselves; they talk a lot about getting laid, would Sandy be willing, when should they make a move.
The three form close-knit circles of friendship. When they first meet, Sandy is on the beach nursing a wounded seagull. They remove a hook and the three nurse and rehabilitate the injured bird back to health. They spend the summer swimming, drinking beer on the beach, smoke pot and bonding. The threesome go on a date to the movies on the mainland where the boys work up the nerve to feel up Sandy, sharing a breast each. The look on Sandy’s face tells you she’s excited. Outside the theater she tells the boys how sexy they made her feel. They run into some local punks and are chased, barely escaping their reach by catching the ferry back to the island.
Into their tight circle comes Rhoda (Catherine Burns), a short plump lonely girl who practically forces her way into their company. She really does not fit in but they let her hang out with them, mostly because they take spiteful pleasure in taunting and mocking her. One afternoon, the boys discover Sandy has killed the seagull after the wild bird bit her. Admonishing her for lying, Peter begins to spend time with Rhoda teaching her how to swim.
Sandy instigates a decision to push the reluctant and inexperienced Rhoda to go on a computer matched date that Sandy initiated as a kick to “trick the computer” with a shy Puerto Rican man named Anibal (Ernesto Gonzalez). At a bar, after a night of drinking and dancing, they run into the same bullies who they escaped from a few nights earlier at the movies. They run off again abandoning the inebriated Anibal who is beaten up by the three punks. Rhoda, the only one reluctant to leave the scene, is dragged away by the others. Later she berates Peter for his behavior which only makes him run take with Sandy and Dan.
On a hot summer’s day, the three go into the woods to cool off from the burning sun, Rhoda tags along. Annoyed that she followed, Sandy removes the top of her bikini swimsuit and badgers Rhoda to do the same. Disgusted by Sandy’s unashamed behavior Rhoda attempts to leave however, Sandy pushes the boys to stop her. Sandy’s desire to destroy Rhoda results in a brutal scene that will bind the three forever.
Sandy, Dan and Peter, lack a moral compass. Everything they do is just for kicks, not seeing any problem; heck all they were doing was having a few laughs. They didn’t mean for the Puerto Rican guy to get beat up; the whole date thing was just an attempt by Sandy to screw up the computer-dating model. This callous treatment is seen throughout the film, Rhoda, is similarly treated, like the wounded seagull, at first she is somewhat accepted into the group and then disregarded always at the mercy of the callous indifference of Sandy.
The four leads are all portrayed so well that it is challenging to select a standout though, Catherine Burns as Rhoda, has a touching monologue sadly describing the circumstances of her mother’s death that is extremely moving. Burns received an Academy Award nomination for her role. Richard Thomas was still a few years away from his career making role of John-Boy in “The Waltons”, and fans who associate Thomas only with that role may be a bit shocked seeing him here as one of the two callous immature teen boys. Of the two, Thomas’ Peter at times shows a sensitivity the others lack, yet his strong bond with Sandy and Dan draws him to side with them in the film’s final heinous conclusion. Bruce Davison adds a strong and convincing dimension as the cocky, sex minded Dan. The two boys are well matched and come across as realistic buddies. One of the film’s strongest features is the authenticity of the way the characters talk, like real teenagers. Barbara Hershey was the best known of the four actors, having already starred in the TV series “The Monroes” a few years earlier. As Sandy, she uses her beauty and brains to sexually tease the horny boys as well as manipulate them. A combination of heartless cruelty and teenage seduction, she’s a dangerous adolescent mix, at one point killing the rescued seagull, then turning the boys against Rhoda.
There are few adults in their lives with who they can connect. When we do see an adult it turns out to Sandy’s mothers’ boyfriend who she confesses, as a “major truth” to the boys, attempted to molest her. The boys talk about uncaring parents who are too busy with their own lives to have much concern for their kids.
“Last Summer” was directed and written by the husband and wife team of Frank and Eleanor Perry. Eleanor adapted the screenplay from Evan Hunter’s novel. During the 1960’s the Perry’s worked on the fringes of Hollywood, other films included “David and Lisa”, “Ladybug, Ladybug”, “Trilogy”, “The Swimmer” and Diary of a Mad Housewife.” Overall, their career together, they separated in 1970, was an interesting mix of flawed successes and misfires. “Last Summer” fits right in as a flawed (technically, I noticed some mismatching shots in some scenes) though engrossing lifelike middle class story about the growing pains of adolescence.
A recurring theme in the Perry’s work is the battle between the sensitive individual dealing the more callous tougher personalities met in life. Here it is Rhoda versus Sandy. In “Diary of a Mad Housewife”, you have Carrie Snodgrass’ meek wife finding her independence faced against an obnoxious husband and a sexiest callous lover.
Add “Last Summer” to the list of films unavailable for DVD. The film was released on VHS video many years ago (Key Video), however it has since remained an elusive work to the home video market, as has “Dairy of a Mad Housewife”, another that has only seen a VHS release. I found a used VHS tape some years ago at a video store specializing in used videos. The film was released with an R rating though it was originally given an X until scenes from the explicit ending were toned down. Be careful if you find the film on TV. Apparently, there are some PG versions floating around that will ruin the premise. Overall, “Last Summer” is an effective though disturbing look at youth with too many empty summer hours to fill with experimentation, sexual awakening, the desire to fit in, and the cruelty of just growing up. Then again, isn’t that what adolescence is all about.