Tribeca Prizewinner Griffin in Summer Finds Comedy and Drama in Bad Playwrighting

Movies Reviews Nicholas Colia
Tribeca Prizewinner Griffin in Summer Finds Comedy and Drama in Bad Playwrighting

In a famous scene from Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, wannabe teenage prodigy Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman) gets drunk and belligerent celebrating his recent success: “I wrote a hit play!” he insists, referring to the fact that his staged adaptation of Serpico seems to have been well-received (or at least tolerated) by his peers and various authority figures. Griffin (Everett Blunck), the even-younger playwright at the center of Griffin in Summer, can’t make so lofty a claim (he’s more likely to evoke Stephen McKinley Henderson’s priest in Lady Bird, sighing “They didn’t understand it”). But it’s easy enough to picture him angrily making the case that his work might clean up at the Drama Desk Awards despite its lack of popularity.

Plays seem to be why Griffin anticipates summer vacation. The break, somewhere in that middle-to-early-high-school range, allows him the fullness of the day to write, cast and tirelessly rehearse his material, all while running roughshod over his supposed creative partner Kara (Abby Ryder Fortson). From a certain vantage, Griffin looks extraordinarily lucky to have a handful of friends even half-interested in indulging his vision, even if his usual trio of actors can’t fully inhabit a story about a toxic marriage between disillusioned, possibly midcentury Manhattanites. (To be fair, Griffin’s writing isn’t necessarily up to the task, either.) But he’s become increasingly frustrated by his friends’ more traditionally social distractions, and it’s getting harder to ignore the misery of his mom (Melanie Lynskey) over his frequently absent father. So the arrival of Brad (Owen Teague), a barely-adult amateur handyman who has actually lived in New York City, puts stars back into his eyes.

Describing Griffin in Summer, which won the U.S. Narrative Feature prize at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, as Rushmore meets Call Me By Your Name with a dash of Theater Camp would probably create too-high expectations around what is a smaller, more delicate undertaking than any of those movies – even Theater Camp, which may not be as emotionally stirring but boasts a much more filled-out cast of eccentrics. But writer/director Nicholas Colia builds out Griffin’s world slowly, and winds up with a quietly formidable ensemble.

The trickiest character is probably Brad, because he must be enticing enough to catch Griffin’s attention – Griffin doesn’t seem surprised to discover he’s gay so much as taken aback to feel anything so untoward as any sexual feelings at all – yet oblivious enough to not immediately shut down Griffin’s bizarre friendship, all without turning into a zonked cartoon. Teague makes Brad into a wounded boy, simply too self-centered (or too willing to be plied with free liquor that Griffin steals from his parents’ supply, a more specific version of the same condition) to truly understand Griffin’s obsession, and too untalented to serve as the mentor Griffin probably needs. Brad tried his hand at performance art in New York, and the unimaginative clips we see make him feel more like a fellow child misfit, with less formal ambition than the actual kid in the room.

Much of Griffin in Summer is an uncomfortable (though sometimes quite funny) negotiation between Griffin and Brad – which makes it even more surprising to realize that, by the end of the film, there’s real affection for the supporting players, including the always-excellent Lynskey as Griffin’s worn-out mom, and the latest scene-stealing comic performance from Kathryn Newton (she plays Brad’s townie girlfriend). The movie, though, truly relies on Blunck, who generates a lot of sympathy despite playing, objectively speaking, an unpleasant little bastard. Sometimes his Frasier Junior/Max Fischer/Slightly Less-Young Sheldon type of routine goes a little broad, but Colia nails the mix of sophisticated presentation and childlike clumsiness more likely to come from a wannabe prodigy than the little-adult wisecracks so many filmmakers settle for. Griffin’s growth, too, is perfectly pitched to avoid feel-good triumphs, which in turn makes the movie paradoxically touching. Griffin isn’t as indelible a character as Max Fischer – but then, he’s still a little younger than Max. Give him a few more years, and he may yet write a hit play, even if it’s still not very good.

Director: Nicholas Colia
Writer: Nicholas Colia
Starring: Everett Blunck, Melanie Lynskey, Owen Teague, Abby Ryder Fortson, Kathryn Newton
Release Date: June 6, 2024 (Tribeca)

Jesse Hassenger is associate movies editor at Paste. He also writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including GQ, Decider, Vulture, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching or listening to, and which terrifying flavor of Mountain Dew he has most recently consumed.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin