Young love is a confusing and bracing time in one’s life. Perhaps this is why the coming of age films are so popular, it is a time in which who we are is often forged in the fire of our decisions. Josh Cox’s Summer of Mesa looks at the heartbreak and joy which comes with the metamorphosis.
Set during the summer of 1985 in Cape Cod, Josh Cox’s Summer of Mesa follows Lily (Molly Miles) as she navigates the final leg of adolescence. While visiting her grandma she becomes reacquainted with a childhood friend John (Alec Bandzes). But then Lily meets Mesa (Andrea Granera) and suddenly her summer is a little more interesting.
It is impossible to watch Summer of Mesa and not be reminded of The Half Of It. But the similarities stop at the surface. While both stories may involve a queer love triangle in a small coastal town, where it’s New England instead of the Northwest, the tone and style are drastically different. For one, Cox seems to be handling everything from the script, camera work, right down to being his own boom mic operator.
A one-man film crew Cox all but nails down his camera. The shots are often shot head-on at a slight distance. The result is scenes have an exactitude to them while also keeping us at an arm’s distance from the characters. In fact the camera is so often front and center that the few times we do have a POV shot from behind someone it feels invasive as if we are crowding the character’s personal space.
Cox does this on purpose. The sterilization of any kind of melodrama, when done right, can be the most powerful. For though the stationary camera and the muted emotions may seem artificial, curbing them; by doing this Cox manages to pull at deeply rooted universal truths. The emotional heft is buoyed by the lack of artifice.
Another reason for the restraint may be because of Cox’s use of non-actors alongside professionals. But the moments in which the non-actors seem unsure are also the moments the characters are unsure themselves. An authenticity begins to blossom throughout the performances of Summer of Mesa.
Early on in the film Cox has a scene in which Lily, John, and Mesa sit on the side of an old country road at night. The three drink beer, smoke cigarettes, and talk in that way teenagers talk with a sort of frank vagueness. As a child of the Midwest, this scene spoke to me on a deeply spiritual level. While I may never have drunk or smoked on the side of the road, I have laid in the open fields, stared up at the starry sky, and had meandering conversations with my friends.
Cox’s Summer of Mesa is an arresting, cold, look at that uncertain time in all our lives. His characters don’t talk in a way that makes them pithy or quotable but they are in no way dumb or sketchily imagined. Cox is not concerned with pop culture or even nailing the time period.
He considers these distractions to his actual goal, the exploration of young love and self-examination. Throughout the film Lily reads Lousia May Alcott’s “Little Women”, a book she has read multiple times before. It is her happy place. Whenever she feels lost or confused she escapes into the book for solace.
Molly Miles plays Lily as a girl desperate to know who she is. Lily tells Mesa, she’s trying to figure out which one of the March sisters she is. “You’re Jo,” she tells Mesa, slightly blushing.
Miles is so good that when she first meets Mesa we can instantly tell, even before she does, that she is drawn to Mesa. John may be a childhood friend but Mesa is the one who seems to draw the young woman out of herself. But 1985 is a different world and Lily isn’t quite sure why she feels the need to hang out with Mesa more than she does John.
John for his part is benign but is representative of everything Lily is not. Lumbering and quiet John seems to have no real opinion on anything or any real inquisitiveness about the world around him. Compared to Lily with her thirst to explore the world around her, he seems like a dead weight. Though, initially, the two grow close because her Grandma, and his Aunt, play matchmaker.
From the start John seems more into Lily than Lily seems into him. But then she meets Mesa and Lily finds herself being drawn towards her. In of itself, this is hardly new, queer coming of age films are hardly new. But Cox’s style is what elevates it.
What is striking about Cox’s film is what isn’t included. Summer of Mesa is devoid of melodramatic proclamations, swelling music, tearful confessions, or any conversations about sexuality. In place of all that is a bare-bones look at two young girls falling in love without realizing they are falling in love-until they do. But none of this detracts from the moment when Mesa and Lily collide in a passionate feverish kiss, it enhances it.
Granera and Miles have a quiet chemistry, almost timid at times. But as Summer of Mesa rolls on, the chemistry grows as the two girls become more confident in their feelings for each other. Cox has a moment where he parallels a date with John with a “date” with Mesa. The date with John is a date whereas with Mesa it may as well be but neither girl feels comfortable calling it one.
Whereas John took Lily to the Windmill, a popular spot for tourists and locals alike, Mesa takes Lily to a quiet spot and listens to her favorite song with her. John wants to impress Lily but Mesa wants to share a part of herself with her. Cox, in one of the rare instances of moving his camera, pans away from Lily and Mesa, as if feeling too voyeuristic peeking in on the moment.
Cox shows a rare maturity in allowing his characters to feel and decide for themselves how they feel without any kind of a plot to dictate what they must be. He doesn’t manufacture drama, questioning your sexuality and expressing any form of queerness is drama enough for 1985.
Mesa surprises Lily with a motel room for their first time together. Cox allows the scene to play out naturally without any threat of discovery or fear of John barging through the door. The anxiety of your first queer sexual experience is anxiety-ridden enough without needlessly adding other theatrical elements to it.
Though as the camera panned away from Mesa and Lily on the bed, I couldn’t help but scream at them to take off their shoes. I get it’s a movie and not at all the purpose of the scene but some things are too ingrained to be ignored. Midwest upbringing aside the scene was tender and tentative as the two girls feel their way through the experience. Much like the earlier scene the camera pan feels as if Cox is giving the girls their own privacy.
Cox’s camera work could be called minimalist in the extreme. But he’s executing a subtle style of photorealism mixed with nostalgia. The opening credits are a series of photographs with a golden tint to them. Cox’s camera placement gives the film a hint of memory. It’s as if we are witnessing Lily’s memories of that fateful summer, the summer where she found herself.
The film’s final moments seem to suggest as much. Cox’s final shot is simple yet poignant, resonating sadness and regret. A maudlin ending to a movie that had luxuriated in timid yearning. The fond memories of summer colliding with the cold harshness of autumn.
Summer of Mesa may be too lean at times but its attention to detail and humanistic eye of the camera more than makes up for it. Cox and his actors delight in tiny behavioral observations, both in terms of how they move and act, but also how they express their feelings. While the story may not be new, the voice telling it, is.