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'The Big Sick' and the health of the summer counter-programmer

'The Big Sick' and the health of the summer counter-programmer
Zoe Kazan and Kumail Nanjiani in "The Big Sick." (Amazon Studios)

Far away as the era seems to be, summer was once a time for heartfelt human stories at the movie theater. Audiences saw beach season as ideal for character-driven tales — "Stand by Me" was the highest-grossing August release in the summer of 1986, "Ghost" the biggest July ‎hit a few years later. "American Graffiti" came out in the summer. So did "An Officer and a Gentleman."‎

Those times are about as recognizable today as mullets and boardwalk lime-rickeys. Summers now are filled with explosions, shared universes, action sequences and more brands that you can toss a comic-book at.

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But those grounded days could be making their way back with 'The Big Sick," the new, and nuanced, romantic dramedy based on the real-life story of actor Kumail Nanjiani and his wife, Emily Gordon.

Maybe.

"The Big Sick" will attempt to pull off what these days is known as a counter-programmer — Hollywood's handy term for a film that isn't like the others. In this case, the very noisy others. We'll get a dose of the movie's viability — and of the summer counter-programmer generally — when Amazon Studios/Lionsgate take "Sick" from 326 theaters to about 2,500 this weekend.

In certain parts of America, it can already feel like everyone is talking about "Sick." Michael Showalter's film has done exceedingly well in the big-city art-house world, grossing more than $7 million in those theaters since late June. Najiani and Gordon wrote the story about their early courtship, with Nanjiani starring as a version of himself, an aspiring comic, and Zoe Kazan playing Gordon. Judd Apatow produced it.

Critics have been ebullient and audiences ecstatic — really, as far back as its Sundance debut. "Sick" has a medical plot line, an intergenerational culture clash and complex family entanglements all around. It's also about Muslims in post-9/11 America, both how they're perceived and how they perceive themselves. Thanks to Apatow's commercial-comedy touch, the film is certainly funny, but it also takes on some pretty big issues. And it does all of this in the context of a winningly intimate story.

Yet the big-city art-house world is very different from the rest of the country. That lesson was in evidence this past fall and winter, as it is many falls and winter, when a slew of hopefuls all faltered upon widening — "Queen of Katwe," "Patriots Day," "Jackie" and "Nocturnal Animals" were just some of them. Summer makes such delicate offerings even trickier, since the competition for mainstream mindshare is that much heavier..

Can such a fragile flower survive in this harsh climate?‎ The gold standard for a Sundance-driven counter-programmer is "Little Miss Sunshine," a story of an offbeat family road trip that seduced audiences at the 2006 festival, then opened slowly in July before grossing nearly $60 million ($72 million today) and very nearly winning best picture. But it's an anomaly.

The biggest challenge with many counter-programmers as they expand is that the hardcore audience has already seen it and everyone else isn't interested. You can try to build word of mouth as much as you like, but if people aren't listening then it doesn't matter how good that word is.

Jumping the fence requires some other element, some form of cultural ignition — look at how "La La Land" went from what could have been a twee festival darling to massive phenomenon thanks to hummable music and appealing leads. In summer that can happen — but usually in far less indie quarters, as movies like "Mamma Mia" and "Julie & Julia" have each capitalized on their differences from the action and animated, and their general Meryl Streepishness, for counter-programming success.

Does "Sick," with a wide range of tones and themes, have similar assets on its side?‎ Can it get to $30 million-$40 million total in the U.S., or even $50 million-$60 million, a decided high water-mark? (Amazon paid $12 million to acquire the movie out of Sundance.)

Nanjiani says he thinks the mainstream could embrace the film precisely because it covers so much ground.

"We wanted this give this a summer release, even though it meant going against franchise tent poles and bigger comedies," the writer-star said in an interview. "We think there are a lot of different people who can connect with it — a grandmother can see it with her 14-year-old grandson and each of them will get something out if it. But it is nerve-racking."‎

The very fact that "Big Sick" is so different from much of what's out there is, filmmakers hope, a selling point. "It's a very specific story of real people, and summer studio comedies don't always to that," said producer Barry Mendel in an interview. He compared it to what Apatow did with "Trainwreck," not exactly a counter-programmer but a bit out of the box in its own way.

"He thought, 'We never follow the drunk party-girl home; she's usually just a friend,'" he said. "And look what a hit it became." A Pakistani-Muslim lead with a strong dose of hospital drama — not exactly garden-variety studio-comedy material — could do the same.

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Still, the difference-as-virtue is a nice notion that doesn't always work out. For every "La La," "Ex Machina" or "Black Swan" that hit because it determinedly didn't look like anything else, there are numerous examples of films that didn't.

Not to be discounted here is politics. The filmmakers readily admit that they expected to release the movie during a Hillary Clinton presidency. Now the prominence of a Muslim American and immigrant (on- and offscreen) gives the movie unexpected resonance. Of course, what helps with some audiences could ding it with others.

If the "The Big Sick" succeeds, it can undermine the nasty studio canard that religious and racial minorities in lead roles don't play with mainstream audiences. It could also tell us something about pop culture and summer-moviegoing. That the idea that mainstream audiences only want big and noisy in their theater offerings — that thoughtful and intimate is a thing of summers past — simply is not true.

On one hand it's silly to read too much into one indie film or to saddle it with too much expectation. But in a year when box office is down and franchise fatigue is kicking in — "War for the Planet of Apes" is the refreshing exception this weekend; its chops could actually lure in some of the "Big Sick" audience — it's the right moment to ask if there remains hope for the quiet summer movie. When times are dark, one hopes that a ray of light, or some "Sunshine," can still peek through.

Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT

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