The Summer of Sangailé (2015) Sundance Review

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What: Film Review
Directed and Written by: Alanté Kavaïté
Produced by: Zivile Gallego, Antoine Simkine
Starring: Julija Steponaitytė, Aistė Diržiūtė, Jūratė Sodytė, Martynas Budraitis, Laurynas Jurgelis, Nelė Savičenko, Inga Šalkauskaitė
Language: Lithuanian with English subtitles
Running Time (in min.): 88 minutes
Rating: Not Rated
Opening Day Film of the 2015 Sundance Film Festival

****

Sensuous imagery does not riveting drama make in the second feature from Lithuanian multihyphenate Alanté Kavaïté. Though unremittingly gorgeous and powerfully acted, the overwhelming artifice of The Summer of Sangailé limits the effect of this film, which had its World Premiere as the Day One selection of the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. Most unfortunately, the talented actors within are bound to go down with the ship if not given the opportunities to stretch their abilities elsewhere.

This year’s Sundance has already been highlighted as a particularly strong one for queer narratives, and while Summer fits the mold, its contribution to LGBTQI-focused storytelling is minor. It does, however, represent a much-needed reminder of the ambitions of Lithuanian artists moving out of the Western European cinema niche and into the American consciousness. The film in question is nothing if not resplendent, and the work of a gifted female writer/director to boot. Aptly, it will compete next month for the Teddy Award at the Berlinale.

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In fact, one can see what appealed to the festival programmers from the very first sequence, in which the pubescent Sangailé (Julija Steponaitytė, commanding) watches single-passenger stunt planes sweep the skies of a rural town outside Vilnius. Her obsession with flight leads to several bravura sequences, each a landmark of developments in her young life: the discovery and exploration of her homosexuality; combative communication with her father and stepmother; and her journey to overcome the vertigo that prevents her from even dreaming of pilot school. All the while, she meanders around the Lithuanian countryside enjoying one of those summers where the scents of sex, cigarettes, and pine create a timeless haze.

As it happens, these moments play less like seminal touchstones in the life of a real individual than like quirks to be conquered and limned to the edge of the story. All but the “A” narrative, in which our protagonist alternately pursues and rejects the beautiful Auste (Aistė Diržiūtė, the film’s real breakout), suffer this same fate. Even Kavaïté’s best-written and most expressive scene, in which Sangailé’s former-dancer mother confesses to the grief of quitting her art, cuts itself short.

In her previous feature, Fissure, Kavaïté demonstrated an affinity for the kind of economic storytelling in which not much needs to be said. So it should be stressed that the electricity generated between Diržiūtė and Steponaitytė could jump-start a car, and that both actors are game for the kind of performer intimacy most recently demonstrated in Abdellatif Kechiche’s bravura Blue Is The Warmest Color (2013). Connections between the two films are cheaply made, but the similarities don’t end with the lesbian sex. Color here takes over for verbal language, bathing the viewer in prismatic blues, pinks, and greens that thankfully avoid the purposes of metaphor. And Kavaïté, working as director and writer, further impresses with an epic visual scale that eclipses the eponymous summer’s events as Sangailé moves on in years.

But the age-old trap of keeping anything of value from being vocalized leads to the stuff of emotional complexity falling wastefully through the cracks – unless the director is Béla Tarr or Tsai Ming-liang – such that even the great care and formal attentiveness that Kavaïté and the magnificent cinematography by Dominique Colin pay in service of Sangailé’s growing pains negate much of her inner life. Colin switches with ease between highly mobile camera work, the kind that simulates flight, and appropriately static shots, but the damage is done. Despite the best efforts of the artisans involved, Sangailé ultimately remains a cipher with professional dreams and not much else.

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