We mentioned this feature film screenwriter debut by actress Tori Titmas in passing during our review of the indie time travel fantasy Making Time, in which Titmas stars. We had The Girls of Summer on our longlist for our “Rock ‘n’ Roll Week” of film reviews (ran from Sunday, July 19th, to Saturday, July 25), but even with six reviews a day (over our usual four) across seven days, we still couldn’t fit all of the rock movies we wanted into the schedule. So goes the B&S About Movies’ folly: too many movies and so little time on the calendar. Damn those day jobs and need to sleep.
Now, if you haven’t read our review for Making Time (and you should, it’s a wonderful indie film), then good: you’ll appreciate the B&S About Movies twist on this country music-centric romantic tale. One of the most enjoyable aspects of being a reformed UHF cathode ray tube warrior and VHS-renting savant that now uploads movie reviews into the digital ethers, is recognizing the obscure-to-most-but-stars-in-our-eyes names of actors and directors from that UHF and VHF, and even drive-in past. And in the case of The Girls of Summer, the name of the man in the director’s chair stood out. (No, it can’t be the same guy?)
Now, in reviews on various social media and VOD platforms, the threaders mentioned director John D. Hancock’s work with Robert DeNiro in one of the greatest sports dramas committed to film, Bang the Drum Slowly (1973). Others mention Hancock’s work with Nick Nolte in the memorable cult cable flick, Weeds (1987). But those threaders failed to mention that Hancock made of one of the most unconventional, ambiguous Christmas movies of all time, Prancer (1989) (He killed the reindeer! Well, we think he did?). And when HBO went on the air in the early ’80s, two of Hancock’s movies became cult classics courtesy of their incessant replays due to HBO’s then limited library: the very good, but theatrically-buried Baby Blue Marine (1976; starring Jan-Michael Vincent) and California Dreaming (1979; starring Dennis Christopher). (Both aired alongside Matt Dillon’s debut in the juvenile delinquency drama Over the Edge, Hazel O’Connor’s punk romp Breaking Glass, and the punk-doc Urgh! A Music War. Ah, the HBO days. . . .)
However, before Nolte. Before DeNiro. Before his HBO cult status, Hancock, inspired by George Romero’s success with Night of the Living Dead on the drive-in circuit — along with Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (that became 1963’s The Haunting) — he decided to make his feature film debut with his own drive-in centric horror movie. But instead of just giving us another run-of-the-mill, low-budget monster romp or zombie soiree, he gave us one of the ’70s creepiest (without the gore) drive-in horrors that explores the psychology of a main character that may or may not be stalked by a vampire — 1973’s Let’s Scare Jessica to Death. (You don’t think so? Well, tell it to my childhood-self sitting in the back of the family Ford LTD station wagon. I slept with a quilt around my neck for the next two weeks because of Jessica’s folly. So thanks for the memories, Mr. Hancock.) Then we lost track of John D. Hancock. (It seems Prancer’s unconventional approach to the Christmas spirit was too much for Hollywood to handle.) But no matter. He’s back and we couldn’t be happier. And we have Tori Titmas to thank for bringing one of our favorite directors from our snowy n’ static analog childhood back into our lives.
“Dude, you’re doing it, again.”
“Going off the rails with the squeezin’ the Charmin love for old movies and their directors and actors. Just live in “the now” and review the movie already. And please, don’t tie this back into Seinfeld. That’s really getting annoying.”
“Hey, I can’t make any promises. It’s my slice of web and I’ll go off the rails if I want to. . . .“
As we mentioned earlier, country music (actually, it’s more of an Americana-genre vibe) plays a part in this well-scripted, metaphorical tale about Maren Taylor (Tori Titmas), a Michigan-Midwest sod farmer who experiences a metamorphosis as she learns how to adapt to the environments around her.
After her two younger sisters leave home, for college and a big city job in advertising on the west coast, Maren’s left alone to tend to the family’s sod business and care of her clinically depressed, narcotic-abusing father, which was triggered by her musician-mother’s untimely death. The one thing that kept Maren afloat was The Girls of Summer, the local country band in which she serves as drummer and that she put together with her guitarist-singing sister Grace. And now that life preserver is gone.
A chance visit from Luke Thomas (Dr. Lewis Rand on a story-arc of Chicago P.D.), a down-and-out country star trying to claw his way back to the top, to the bar where Maren’s resigned as being her last gig, offers a ray of hope: his band needs a new drummer and he’s impressed by the original songs she wrote for her sister. Once Maren’s father realizes his “loss of color” and her having to be “his parent” is robbing his daughter of her colors, he urges her to follow her dreams and take the gig with Luke’s band (even if it is just a tour of local watering holes, state fairs, and retirement communities). And she finds true love for the first time as result of her writing what turns out to be a sort-of-comeback hit for Luke — in a duet. But she also discovers the hurt of his unrequited love. And she discovers the gift of how the baggage of the past — if not let go — can destroy one’s future. As with the grass she spent her life cultivating, Maren learns she needs to keep looking to the sun. And growing.
If you’re looking for the dramatic bombast of TV’s Nashville or the acting hysterics of A Star Is Born (2018), keep in mind: this a low-budget movie that takes a quiet, under-played delicateness to its musician-on-the-rise story (which, if you haven’t figured it out, isn’t the “point” of the story). Courtesy of Titmas creating an effectively-arced character infused with verve and wide-eyed innocence, and expected, solid direction by John D. Hancock, along with expertly-executed cinematography by Misha Suslov (who, like Hancock, has a long career that stretches back to the hicksploitation romps Smokey and the Judge* and Trucking Buddy McCoy*, along with John Carpenter’s forgotten, big-engine actioner Black Moon Rising**), The Girls of Summer rises over the horizons of many of the similar, low-budget romance flicks airing on the Hallmark Channel.
Yeah, the B&S About Movies staff is pretty happy to see the director of Let’s Scare Jessica to Death and the cinematographer of Trucking Buddy McCoy back together again. So kudos to Tori Titmas for penning a compelling script that inspired them both and brought them together — and back to our (streaming) screens. And shame on us for losing our inner-John D. Hancock and Misha Suslov after Prancer. So it looks like we got some catch-up movie watching to do, as team Hancock-Suslov have four other films on their dual resume that swept under our VCR radar: the Top Gun-centric Steal the Sky (1988; with Ben Cross), the rom-com A Piece of Eden (2000), the horror-thriller Suspended Animation (2001), and the musical-drama The Looking Glass (2015).
Other cult cable TV favorites in the Misha Suslov canons are the teen delinquent drama 3:15 the Moment of Truth (1986; with Adam “My Bodyguard” Baldwin and Deborah “Valley Girl” Foreman) . . . and you know how we are about Eric Roberts (Power 98) around here: Suslov shot the 1986 Roberts-Rosanna Arquette comedy Nobody’s Fool. And, what the . . . he shot a Mark L. Lester movie . . . with Eric Roberts? Yep, 1996’s Public Enemies*ˣ. And does anyone remember the action-horror The Runestone (1991; with Peter Reigert of Animal House)? I do! (As if we don’t have enough movies to watch n’ review around here. Thanks a lot for opening that film canister of worms, Tori!)
Making its VOD premiere on Amazon Prime, The Girls of Summer recently made its free-with-ads stream debut on TubiTv. You can learn more about the film on its official Facebook page and website. And be sure to visit Indie Rights Movies and check out the trailers for their current roster of films, most of which, as with The Girls of Summer, are available on TubiTv.
* There’s more hicksploitation flicks to be had with our “Top 70 Good Ol’ Boys Film List: 1972 to 1986,” rife with review links of redneckin’ drive-in classics.
** We reviewed Black Moon Rising as part of our week-long tribute to the Fast & Furious franchise, which we round-up with our Mill Creek “Savage Cinema” box set of reviews.
*ˣ We reviewed Public Enemies as part of our week-long tribute to the filmography of Mark L. Lester (just plug in “Mark Lester/Mark L. Lester” into the site’s search box and you’ll find cinema gold!).
Disclaimer: We weren’t provided with a screener nor received a review request from the filmmakers. We discovered this film on our own and truly enjoyed the movie.
About the Author: You can learn more about the writings of R.D Francis on Facebook. He also writes for B&S About Movies and publishes on Medium.