Though “Crip Camp” didn’t end up going home with the Oscar on Sunday evening, it’s done plenty toward making people aware of the need for disabled narratives that are positive and happy. For us to see true inclusion, it’s not enough to simply tell disabled stories, but to make disability part of every story. A prime example of that is the new teen musical, “Best Summer Ever.”
The most ambitious feature undertaken by Zeno Mountain Farm, a camp aimed at immersing disabled and non-disabled kids in the arts and the subject of the 2014 documentary “Becoming Bulletproof,” “Best Summer Ever” seeks to break the record for most disabled performers in a film held by 1932’s horror feature “Freaks.” Outside of that, the musical, with its story of young love, cliques, and following your heart, hopes to prove that inserting disability into every movie is possible and entertaining.
Tony and Sage (Rickey Alexander Wilson and Shannon DeVido, respectively) had the “best summer ever” after falling in love at dance camp. They part, unsure when they’ll see each other again. Unfortunately, when Sage ends up settling in the Midwest she discovers she’s at the same school as Tony. The two are reunited, but the course of love doesn’t run smooth, mostly because the school hopes Tony’s football skills can break a 25-year curse and head cheerleader Beth (MuMu) wants the teen dream for herself.
Told in a little over an hour, “Best Summer Ever” knows its story isn’t original. In fact, when Sage and Tony recount meeting each other to their respective friends, one of the teens jokes “tell me more, tell me more.” Whether it’s “Grease” or “High School Musical,” using established tropes and connections to other movies does its part to entice audiences to this new entry. If you enjoyed any of those movies, you’ll enjoy this.
And that familiarity is necessary because of what distinguishes “Best Summer Ever” from every other movie: its predominately disabled cast. From the first frame, as the characters break down the summer camp and launch into the title song, it will take your breath away seeing people with so many different abilities singing and dancing in the frame. More importantly, the script never stops the narrative to explain someone’s disability. The characters are just people, who happen to get from A to B with different durable medical equipment.
Because, too often, disability love stories are relegated to disabled men, it’s refreshing to see a character like DeVido’s Sage. I can only imagine a tween or teen girl in a wheelchair watching this movie and seeing the love between Sage and Tony. The fact that Sage, a wheelchair user, is seen as beautiful, especially by the able-bodied Tony, is a gamechanger in a world where women, regardless of ability, are so often objectified.
Zeno Mountain Farms
DeVido takes Sage away from the girl desperate for a place to call home — her moms are cannabis growers who travel every few months — and into a teen with a wicked sense of humor. The way DeVido deadpans embarrassment when her moms start singing about her rolling her own path is great. At the same time, Wilson’s Tony is a charming teen straight out of the “High School Musical” playbook: a football player afraid to tell his coach and guardian that he’s more interested in dance.
The script, credited to Will Halby, Terra Mackintosh, Michael Parks Randa, Andrew Pilkington, and Lauren Smitelli, uses the formula established by other movies and uses that to create some hilarious moments with their disabled and able-bodied cast. Two teenage sports announcers create laughs by openly mocking how horrible their football team is and that none of the players will go to top tier schools. Resident bad girl Beth, played by the devilishly delightful MuMu, also steals every scene she’s in whether it’s turning a song crass or trying to chain a door.
It can’t be stressed enough how different everything feels when you include disabled performers. Many of the actors included are just starting out, and all have various disabilities that affect speech and line delivery, yet they all keep the script bouncing and fun. Even something like Beth and Sage’s fighting over Tony feels unique, in that never once does Beth go low and point out Sage’s wheelchair. When she chains the door in the hopes of keeping Sage from meeting Tony in the third act, it’s funny because it is the one time Beth plays on Sage being a wheelchair user.
By not acknowledging differences, “Best Summer Ever” takes a generic premise and makes it feel spunky and fresh. Zeno Mountain Farms is quickly becoming a serious proving ground for disabled talent; “Peanut Butter Falcon” performer Zak Gottsagen went to Zeno Mountain and met the “Falcon” directors there. Special appearances by Benjamin Bratt, Peter Sarsgaard, and Maggie Gyllenhaal (the latter two one of several high-profile executive producers on the film) also show that A-list talent can be attracted to projects like this.
“Best Summer Ever” isn’t the best movie ever, but what it does is continue to show that disability can be fun, unique, and enticing without being dour. It’s the best at what it’s doing and you’ll want to see more.
Freestyle Digital Media releases “Best Summer Ever” on DVD and VOD today.