MOVIE REVIEW : 'An American Summer': Tom Sawyer Goes Surfing

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Writer-director James Slocum's amusing and poignant "An American Summer" (at the Monica 4-Plex) is an inspired reworking of Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" transposed from the banks of the Mississippi River in the 1850s to the shores of a Southern California beach community during the summer of 1978.

Why 1978? One suspects that Slocum, a USC cinema alumnus in a nifty feature debut, was that year the same age as his 14-year-old hero, Tom Travis (Michael Landes). This unpretentious winner has such a strong personal quality to it that one imagines that the film owes as much--and probably more--to Slocum's own memories of adolescence than it does to Twain. In any event, it has far more depth and substance than the formula surf 'n' sand/bikini beach teen entertainments.

Tom, who's from the affluent, traditional Chicago suburb of Wilmette, makes it clear that California itself, let alone surfing and skateboarding, leave him mightily unimpressed. But his parents are divorcing, and his mother believes he would be better off with her sister Sunny (Joanna Kerns, in an acutely perceptive, understated performance) for the summer. Aunt Sunny is a wry survivor of the '60s, a bohemian single parent who supports herself and her baby by selling her paintings. She lives in a bungalow with artsy-craftsy decor, is an ardent vegetarian, but she's no superannuated flower child. She's practical, independent, mature and responsible while sticking to her counterculture values of the anti-war era. She decries the Me Decade and feels sad that Tom has never heard of Bob Dylan.

Very reluctantly, Tom is drawn into a friendship with Fin (Brian Austin Green), whom he automatically assumes is a mindless surfer. Fin is a terrific surfer, but even more, he's a terrific kid--kind, steady and generous in spirit. Gradually, Tom learns how to have fun, to discover that he's not the only person who's experienced a sense of loss. By the time the summer is over, Tom's life has been filled with fun, companionship, girls, adventure and even danger. He may not realize it at the time, but he's started to grow up.

Slocum remembers what it is like to be 14 as well as Twain did. He knows it is a period when kids desperately crave security but instead can be confronted with wrenching change. He knows how important it can be to have an aunt who is caring and sensible yet gives you plenty of freedom. Slocum underlines high spirits with a fundamental seriousness and sensitivity.

Virtually all the key behind-the-scenes personnel are also USC alumni, which happily suggests that not all film students want to show off their finesse with special-effects razzle-dazzle. "An American Summer" (rated PG-13 for a discreet scene depicting the first stirrings of sex) is a first feature for almost everyone involved, including Landes and Green, who are both very accomplished actors. We surely will be seeing more of them, and Slocum too.

'An American Summer'

Michael Landes: Tom

Brian Austin Green: Charles (Fin) Finley

Joanna Kerns: Aunt Sunny

Wayne Pere: Rockman

A Boss Entertainment Group presentation. Writer-director-producer James Slocum. Executive producer Jane Hamsher. Cinematographer Bruce Dorfman. Surfing cinematographer Steven Soderberg. Editor Ron Rosen. Costumes Linda Susan Howell. Music Roger Neill. Production design Damon Fortier. Art director Edward L. Conley III. Set decorator Miki Berman. Sound design Wolf Schmidt. Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes.

MPAA-rated PG-13 (discreet depiction of adolescent sexual stirrings).

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