Canadian Summer Films: A Baker’s Dozen
By Wyndham Wise
(July 19, 2017 – Toronto, ON) Ever since the release of Jaws in the summer of 1975, the 16 weekends from US Memorial Day (the last Monday in May) to Labour Day have increasingly been restricted to summer blockbusters. As Canadian filmmakers on the whole don’t make blockbusters, summer hasn’t been featured much in Canadian films as, say, fall or winter, the traditional time for Canadian cinematic gloom. In fact, if a Canadian movie is released in the summer, it’s usually because the distributor is dumping it for a couple of weeks to comply with Telefilm Canada rules and regs regarding distribution, then it goes directly to secondary markets.
There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. The Big Daddy of all Canadian summer movies, and still one of the most popular, top-grossing Canadian films of all time, is Meatballs (1979). Ivan Reitman’s follow-up to the hugely successful National Lampoon’s Animal House (which he co-produced) is less frantic and more sentimental but definitely in the same mould. Relying on juvenile, bawdy humour and the hip, anti-establishment attitude of Animal House, Meatballs is set in a summer camp in Haliburton, Ontario, for misfits overseen by head counsellor Bill Murray in his first starring role. Murray is the reason to see this film. His high energy and sensitive acting abilities give it style that does not appear in the script or the direction. Despite its critical drubbing, Meatballs won the Golden Reel Award in 1980, and Genie Awards for its screenplay and actress Kate Lynch.
Meatballs was followed by two sequels (neither of which were produced by Reitman) and a subset of knockoff summer films. If Meatballs’ humour is too sophisticated for your tastes, then you might want to consider Oddballs (1984). Hardy (Foster Brooks), the owner of a boy’s summer camp – who accidently won it in a poker game and hates kids – just wants to unload the place. The owner (Donnie Bowes) of a rival girl’s camp across the lake has plans to buy it and turn it into a shopping mall. Throw in a bunch of horny adolescent boys who spy on the girls, a blind bus driver, child-molestation jokes and a camp counsellor (comedian Mike MacDonald) who is a stand-in for the Bill Murray, and you have a raunchy summer camp comedy à la Meatballs without an once of its charm.
Air Bud (1997) is a modest boy-and-his-dog Disney knockoff that tells the sentimental tale of Buddy, a lovable basketball-scoring stray, and Kevin (Kevin Zegers), a lonely, inward boy. Buddy escapes the clutches of a bad-tempered clown (Michael Jeter) and is befriended by Kevin, who discovers his hoop abilities. Through a series of improbable events, Buddy becomes the star of the local high school basketball team. When the misanthropic clown returns to reclaim his dog, events culminate in a chase. Air Bud is an easygoing family film that takes more than a few movie genres and stuffs them into Hollywood’s summertime blender. Nicely shot on location in British Columbia, Air Bud won the Golden Reel Award in 1998.
J.A. Martin, photographe (1977) A wife (Monique Mercure) takes a courageous decision to leave her five children at home and accompany her husband (Marcel Sabourin) on his yearly summer tour as an itinerant photographer. They travel through the backwoods of late 19th-century Quebec shooting weddings and baptisms and, more importantly, rediscovering each other. This marvellously observed, slow-paced film directed by Jean Beaudin – one of the best films ever produced by the National Film Board of Canada – has little plot but many rewarding interludes and extraordinary performances from the two leads, especially Monique Mercure. The film is obviously a cameraman’s dream, for its strength lies not in a riveting plot but rather in the mood set by the extraordinary visuals. It won seven Canadian Film Awards including best feature film, director, and actress (Mercure), and Mercure shared the best actress honours at Cannes.
My American Cousin (1985) was Sandy Wilson’s debut feature, and has emerged as something of an English-Canadian classic, operating simultaneously as a deeply personal film and as a metaphor for the inferiority complex of our national psyche. Margaret Langrick is endearing as the teenage girl living in rural British Columbia who becomes infatuated with her handsome American cousin (John Wildman), who has come to visit for the summer. Wilson’s sweet storyline and the charm of her characters gives the film a universal appeal that ultimately led to its international success. It manages to be both an unabashed pronouncement of its nationality and fun at the same time. In 1986 it won the top five Genie Awards, taking prizes for picture, director, screenplay, actor (Wildman) and actress (Langrick) as well as editing.
Filmed in the tourist village of Kaslo on Kootnay Lake, in the interior of B.C., Magic in the Water (1995) is a slight, charming family film in the Disney mould. It concerns two youngsters (Sarah Wayne and Joshua Jackson) on a summer vacation with their preoccupied divorced father (Mark Harmon). First Nations lore says that a mysterious Loch Ness-like creature named Orky inhabits the lake (this is based on the legend of Ogopogo said to be found in Okanagan Lake, which is several hundred miles west of Kootnay Lake). It’s Ashley who first sees the mythical monster. She tells her dad, and of course, he initially disbelieves her but the girl seems so earnest that he begins to wonder. His investigation leads him down a magical road to reconciliation and a rediscovery that there’s a life outside of his career.
Based on Wilson Rawls’s award-winning children’s novel, Summer of the Monkeys is a nostalgic family film set in the late 19th century starring Michael Ontkean, which tells the story of a 12-year-old boy (Corey Sevier) who rescues chimpanzees that escaped from the local circus train and hopes to use the reward money to fulfill his lifelong dream of buying a pony. Along the way, he learns a lot about chimps, faith, family and what’s truly important in life. Ontkean and Leslie Hope play the boy’s parents, Katie Stuart is his handicapped sister and Wilford Brimley plays the boy’s grandfather. Filmed in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, by Michael Anderson (Around the World in 80 Days), Disney scheduled it for straight-to-video, but decided to release it theatrically in ‘family-friendly’ American markets in 1998.
In Clement Virgo’s Lie with Me (2005), Leila (Lauren Lee Smith) is a solitary and adventurous young woman who has never been in love. That doesn’t trouble her, though, because what she really likes to do is masturbate, wander the city (the Annex neighbourhood of Toronto) and have sex with strange men. Yet Leila’s cool sexual knowledge is thrown into chaos when she meets David (Eric Balfour), an emotional and protective guy who needs more from her than just sex. A sizzling summer romance that doesn’t venture much beyond the carnal couplings of the attractive lovers; yet, it’s lovingly shot, as light as a summer breeze, and Toronto has never looked so warm and inviting.
Once in a Blue Moon (1996) is Philip Spink’s little-seen, delightfully innocent family film set in Vancouver during the iconic summer of 1967, Canada’s Centennial year. It’s the tale of a nine-year-old boy (Cody Serpa), who decides to build a rocket for a trip to the moon in his backyard. As he struggles with obstacles such as neighbourhood bullies and family chores, he has to cope with his struggling parents’ (Mike MacDonald and Cheryl Wilson) revolving-door foster-care program. With the arrival of an androgynous First Nations orphan (Simon Baker), Peter finds a willing partner in his secret plan.
Gail Harvey’s Some Things that Stay (2004) is a summer romance set in 1950s Eisenhower-era America and shot in southern Ontario outside of Hamilton. Tamara’s (Katie Boland) bohemian parents (Alberta Watson and Stuart Wilson) move yearly as her father restlessly looks for landscapes to paint. At 15 all she wants to do is stay in their new location, a farmhouse in a small rural town in upstate New York. Tamara enjoys the summer, marvelling at fireflies and flirts with a local boy (Kevin Zegers). Her life becomes complicated, however, when her mother is suddenly diagnosed with tuberculosis, and she is left in charge of two younger siblings while her father is off painting. A seemingly simple coming-of-age story that has a rich emotional content with beautiful cinematography provided by Frank Tidy (The Dualists, The Grey Fox).
For the younger, pre-teen set, parents might want to check out three summer films from Rock Demers’s Tales for All collection. Clean Machine (1992) is about a spoiled 12-year-old (Pierre-Luc Brillant) and his good friend (Vincent Bolduc) who set up a house-and-yard cleaning company to make during the summer in their Montreal neighbourhood. Another youngster is a budding filmmaker making a video commercial of their activities. However, each of the children has their own agenda and trouble soon erupts. Dancing on the Moon (1998) is a sugary sweet coming-of-age film set on a farm during the summer in the countryside north of Montreal. Maddie (Natalie Vansier) is on the verge of 13 but not yet ready to leave her childhood behind. Things change when an eccentric aunt (Dorotheé Berryman) comes to visit and teaches Maddie ‘never to let fear stop you from dancing on the moon.’ The Case of the Witch Who Wasn’t (1981) concerns two pre-teens (Marie-Stéphane Gaudry and Kesnamelly Neff), pen pals, who spend a summer together in rural Quebec. They go to aid of an elderly woman (Madeleine Langlois), thought to be a witch, and turn detective while trying to solve the mystery of her missing pig.
**NOTE: This original Northernstars.ca article was first published in late June, 2013.
This article was written for Northernstars.ca by Wyndham Wise, the former publisher and editor-in-chief of Take One: Film in Canada. It is Copyright © 2013 and may not be reproduced without prior written approval. Click here for more information about copyright.