Review: In sun-dappled ‘Summer Solstice,’ old frictions re-emerge, as does a belated independence

A woman in a pool teases a person pouring wine.
Marianne Rendón, left, and Bobbi Salvör Menuez in the movie “Summer Solstice.”
(Cartilage Films)
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The genre of attractive, heartsick people wriggling in sun-kissed discomfort — a legacy extending from Eric Rohmer through Nicole Holofcener — has an appealing new portraitist in Brooklyn-based writer-director Noah Schamus, if their debut feature “Summer Solstice,” a deftly arranged bundle of neuroses trigger-released over a woodsy weekend, is any indication.

The movie stars Bobbi Salvör Menuez as Leo, a trans man and acting hopeful navigating the urban wilds of auditions and romance. He is visited by Eleanor (Marianne Rendón), a bestie from college days driving through New York. Never mind that during the coming week Leo has a big callback for a possible part in a series: When the persuasive, energetic Eleanor suggests he join her for a few days upstate in an acquaintance’s empty country house, he says yes.

Part of the trip’s allure for Leo is as a distraction from classmate and occasional hook-up Alice (Monica Sanborn), who’s been resisting his gentle entreaties for something more. (Leo waiting a whole day for a reply to a harmlessly flirty text, only to get a “haha yup,” is exquisitely funny/squirmy stuff.) But it turns out Eleanor’s unbottled theatricality is its own emotional minefield, tinged with a performative, semi-defensive brashness about her life status (she calls herself a photographer but doesn’t have a camera with her) and a tendency to diagnose perceived problems in Leo’s life. Gradually, Leo grasps that who he is now — confident and forward-looking, eager to be anything but performative — doesn’t necessarily mesh with the vibe his old friend seeks.


Which of course means that the unsaid stuff from what sounds like a one-sided friendship back in the day is on track to get an airing. They run into Oliver (Mila Myles), another trans actor whom Leo once felt competitive about, and a bisexual friend of Oliver’s named Joe (Yaron Lotan). But over pool time, fancy cheese and wine, a camaraderie born of shared experience develops among the three who identify as queer, one that leaves an increasingly drunk Eleanor feeling like a needy outsider in a new clique. (“I wish I were queer,” she tosses out in a pitiable bid to feel kinship.)

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Eleanor is the kind of molecule-jostling character who could easily overrun a friendship-in-crisis tale, and the brilliant Rendón’s grab bag of open-book facial expressions, line readings and physicality is a sweet-and-sour entree in itself. But Schamus doesn’t let her upset a balance that started with us appreciating Menuez’s beaming, understated charm. The ginger-haired, soft-spoken Menuez is so immediately likable that when Leo runs lines in preparation for his audition, we hang on every word for any hint that he might not get the job.

Consequently, when Eleanor convinces him to try a different, angrier tack to the role, a gesture steeped in the control she clearly used to feel over him, it feels like a slow-motion train wreck. But not so much that we lose faith in this pair making sense of some gender-dynamic confusion, sorting out their secrets and desires, and forging a new closeness.

With Jack Davis’ unobtrusive, crisply present cinematography fusing the pull of the bucolic with the changing weather of the actors’ close-ups, and Margaux’s tuneful guitar score agreeably stitching the scenes, Schamus’ sensitive and funny debut brings its anxieties and pleasures to full bloom so they can be properly considered and found suitably fleeting. Perhaps most importantly, with “Summer Solstice,” trans visibility in film now has a sun-dappled comedy of manners for its nascent canon. Though modest in aim and light on its feet, it gives hope that, like with Rohmer, trans stories eventually reach all the seasons.

'Summer Solstice'

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 21 minutes

Playing: Opens Friday, June 21 at Laemmle Glendale