Writers: Tara Johnson-Medinger and Brandon Lee Roberts
Director: Tara Johnson-Medinger
Never change yourself for a relationship is a pretty good message for a teen movie and while the geeky girl makeover trope is a tired one, the lead character usually ends up a little more glamorous or popular than her original self. Tara Johnson-Medinger’s 2018 movie My Summer as a Goth, available for digital download this week, may look at more extreme identity changes but ultimately still suggests our self-contained but seemingly confident heroine was not quite good enough in the first place.
Joey is left at her grandparents’ house for the summer while her novelist mother completes a book tour. In the wake of her father’s death, illustrator Joey quickly falls for neighbour Victor (also back for the summer) who happens to be a Goth. One rapid makeover later and shy Joey is transformed but is soon out of her depth when the romantic Victor is suddenly not quite as charming as he once seemed.
The ways in which Johnson-Medinger and Brandon Lee Roberts’ screenplay slowly flag Victor’s controlling nature are well managed, and, given the teen movie frame, are limited to criticisms of Joey’s appearance and knowledge of the Goth lifestyle. The audience initially hopes rather than understands that breaking the cycle of coercive control is the subject of this movie, and it is only later when Joey’s grandparents and friends question Victor’s attitude that the narrative finally kicks against the notion of self-improvement to find a relationship. And that transition, in which Joey’s perspective shifts from romanticising the idea of Victor to recognising his toxicity, is well achieved.
More troubling is the concept of self-acceptance and the appropriation of identities to fit in, a process discussed but never properly resolved in the film’s conclusion. Joey fundamentally adopts the visual Goth persona for a man and is never shown to either question the appropriateness of that for her herself or the underlying lifestyle in any detail. Joey’s decisions to retain the ‘look’ seems predicated on a belief that it has made her more distinctive and popular without ever really reflecting the girl we met in the opening sequence – her talent for illustration all but forgotten.
Natalie Shershow’s Joey s a likeable lead if a fairly standard character type. Grieving for a beloved father whose grave she visits daily, Shershow shows a period of personal crisis, lashing out at family members and uncertain of who she wants to be. Shershow, looking a little older than her character’s 16 years, suggests Joey’s naivety, the desperation of a first crush and various cliched rites of passage – drinking, drugs and staying out all night – that define screen teenagers before finding a convincing inner strength.
Most of the surrounding cast are a little too stagey for a conventional tone that is neither heightened or comic enough for the broad performances. Jack Levis is a preening Victor, so in love with himself that it is hard to believe he would ever notice Joey, while grandparents Fayra Reeters and Jonas Israel cannot decide whether they want to be cool guardians or disciplinarians so their chastisements and worry never really ring true. Even the bookended High School set feel like a pale shadow of Mean Girls which 15 years on demonstrates how little the concept has evolved.
Stories about finding your identity are not always easy to manage on screen and My Summer as a Goth leaves the audience unconvinced that Joey has found hers. While it makes a valuable point that a partner should never tell you who you should be, there is little appreciation for who Joey was to begin with.
Digital Release Date: 11 November