Sangailė (Julija Steponaityte) is a reserved young woman, someone not prone to appreciating the spotlight. Which is unfortunate, because Austė (Aistė Diržiūtė) is all spotlight, an outgoing, driven young woman who takes an interest in Sangailė when they meet at an air show. After an awkward flirtation with a young man in Austė’s circle, Sangailė finds herself increasingly drawn to Austė herself. From there, the two young women begin a lush, passionate love affair over the course of a single, languid Lithuanian summer. But can their newfound love survive the end of the summer as they move on with their lives as young adults?
Sangailė is at that prickly age where she has to start planning for life after school and she has no idea what that will look like, but the last people she wants help from are her parents. Julija Steponaityte’s gawky performance perfectly captures the post-adolescent awkwardness of her character, a great contrast to Aistė Diržiūtė’s slightly older confidence. Diržiūtė reminded me a little of Broad City‘s Ilana Glazer turned down about a thousand percent, a DIY homespun artist always up for an adventure and unflaggingly supportive of her girl. The two of them find a lot of chemistry in the smaller moments, as Austė brings Sangailė out of her shell and helps her figure out where her passions lay, but Steponaityte in particular never shies away from reminding us of her character’s relative lack of maturity. The film’s biggest flaw is that it takes so long for Steponaityte and Diržiūtė to come together, because that chemistry holds it all together.
For such a restrained film, which largely eschews a score and isn’t afraid to have characters sit in silence and think for stretches of time, its more intimate sex scenes tend to be more about that first young flush of passion. A rippling back muscle, a hand clenching flesh, lips parted in a moan, a breast, a tender smile – director Alantė Kavaitė turns passion into montage, her two young lovers losing time in one another’s arms. Later, when they’re more familiar, it’s all bodies holding on too tight, clutching at each other and entwining until it’s difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins. As with Desiree Akhavan’s Appropriate Behavior, the sex scenes in The Summer of Sangailė are all motivated, purposeful, ranging from disinterested to needy to playful. Kavaitė’s cuts aren’t as powerful as Akhavan’s, her staging isn’t quite as insightful, but it’s still impressive work for the sort of scenes your typical filmmaker would treat quite cavalierly. Comparing this to something like Blue Is The Warmest Color makes it easy to see the difference between a character-driven sex scene and one intended to titillate its audience.
Indeed, The Summer of Sangailė is a very purposeful film overall. The extended, aerial shot of a stunt pilot showing off at an air fair may seem needless, but director Alantė Kavaitė builds it into the structure of the piece, slowly revealing both Sangailė’s passion for the planes and giving us a feeling for her intense vertigo. Indeed, Kavaitė and Steponaityte both do fantastic work throughout the story of portraying Sangailė’s vertigo. One mesmerizing scene revisits those aerial stunts with a dashboard cam on Steponaityte’s face, and her rapid shifts from nauseous to thrilled to scared and back around are a thing to behold, as the film cuts from her face to the plane in motion and back to her fantastically expressive face.
For much of the film, that face is all we have to hold on to. The Summer of Sangailė is a quiet film, one not prone to telling us very much about what is going on inside its characters heads. Sangailė opens the film as a fairly off-putting character, a guarded, hostile young woman who pushes away anyone who tries to help her. She is an off-putting character at first, and Kavaitė doesn’t give us much to hold on to for the first half-hour or so. Eventually, she figures out how to tell us how we should be viewing her, though, using the editing, the cinematography, and especially Steponaityte’s face to get across that Sangailė is scared rather than mean, lost rather than lazy. While her tentative romance with Austė is vital to the story, it isn’t about that romance. This is very much about Sangailė figuring out who she is and what she wants and learning how to pursue it, and while part of that is a relationship with Austė, she wants much more than just a lover. That can be hard to grasp for much of the film’s runtime, however, as the film luxuriates in their relationship like it’s a hot bath until the moment it isn’t.
Like Leah Meyerhoff’s superb I Believe In Unicorns, Alantė Kavaitė’s The Summer of Sangailė is a deeply-felt, sensitively-observed teen coming-of-age drama more interested in the poetry of passion than in narrative drive. And, also like Unicorns, it could be accused of being too small, too simple, too familiar. There have been a thousand films and ten times as many books about the trials of young lovers, and Kavaitė adds few ideas to that canon. What she does add, though, is a big, heaping dose of lush visual sensuality. It may seem difficult to get lost in material so familiar, but Kavaitė, Steponaityte, and Diržiūtė have made something so gorgeous and affecting that it’s remarkably easy to sink into.