‘Griffin in Summer’ Review: Colia’s Awkward Coming of Age Comedy

The coming-of-age genre has always explored teenage sexuality. More often than not, it is a genre filled with thoughtful ideas, discussing topics about teenage sexuality that are held taboo in society. Nicholas Colia’s feature debut, Griffin in Summer, an awkward and staid comedy, covers the topic of inappropriate sexual crushes that are held by teenagers towards their adult counterparts, to mixed and often uncomfortable results. For 14-year-old aspiring playwright Griffin Nafly (Everett Blunck), the inappropriate crush that he develops is on the stoner pool boy Brad (Owen Teague), who is working part-time at his home. For Brad, being a pool boy is a side hustle, intended to rustle together enough money to get himself back to New York and re-involved in the arts.

But for Griffin, a tumultuous teenager stuck in the fictional suburbs of Borwood, this crush on a 25-year-old stems from his lack of parental role model. With Griffin’s father having recently left his wife and mother to Griffin (Melanie Lynskey), a gaping hole is left in their lives. Griffin’s mother finds this vacuum filled in by excessive alcohol consumption while Griffin processes it by writing a play with mature themes, topics that mirror what he imagines his parents to have gone through behind closed doors. 

Griffin’s play, titled Regrets of Autumn, is pitched by Griffin as a mix of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and American Beauty. The play itself is of a mature nature, with the poster created for the play featuring a martini glass filled with pills. It covers an alcoholic wife and rocky marriage to an unloving, disillusioned husband and is written by Griffin with the teenage glaze of a child who can only understand the broad strokes of his parents’ divorce.

The teenage Griffin has little childlike sensibilities about him. As a 14-year-old, he is in that void of adulthood, not quite knowledgeable enough to be an adult but not youthful enough to be a child. The tiresome protagonist strives to be more mature, which leads him to alienate everyone around him. It begs the question as to why this abrasive child has the friends he does when he treats them so consistently poorly from the get-go. 

There’s a curious juxtaposition between Griffin and his friends, where they’re on the cusp of more stereotypically angst-filled teenage milestones of sex and alcohol (a joke around the ingestion of a hard seltzer is one of the two amusements that this comedy achieves), while he skirts around ‘normal’ milestones and is ready to be an adult while not having the knowledge of adult concepts that come from having experiences. This transience between youth and adulthood that Griffin is stuck in may have found more pathos had he not been the cause of his own problems.

At a certain point, the responsibility for his own actions has to lie with Griffin, which is something that Colia doesn’t seem to want to reckon with, as the film attempts to wave away Griffin’s crimes – a term used liberally but pretty sure there are some federal laws broken by the tween. The moral repugnance of Griffin’s actions makes this protagonist, whose direct actions force Brad to split up with his briefly seen girlfriend (Kathryn Newton), extremely difficult to connect with as it makes the character a villain in his own story. Tonally, this does not work when it is pleading for audiences to laugh at Griffin’s attempts to seduce Brad.

The group of friends that he somehow, almost miraculously, has include play director Kara (Abby Ryder Forston, the recent breakout star of Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret), a fellow tween who disappears early from the film having gotten a boyfriend and an opportunity to leave Borwood for the summer. She leaves the play in the misguided hands of a tyrannical Griffin, whose first act is to switch his male lead to that of Brad (who accepts the role under the false promise of payment).

Their first rehearsal together is more than uncomfortable; the adult Brad is playing an angry husband who is aiming his spit-ridden vitriol at a child. Griffin, naturally, loves this gusto of a performance, uncaring that it has upset his friend. There is an argument to be made that Griffin has the markings of a fledgling sociopath. This is not to say Everett Blunk’s performance is bad – the kid has remarkable acting chops shown in his opening monologue – but it is a melodramatic performance that seems gleeful in the theatricality of his actions, which goes against the whimsical suburban ennui the film crafts.

A concerted effort was made by Colia to not place dramatic focus on the characters’ sexuality. The film is, by all intents and purposes, a queer coming-of-age. But the term is rightfully misplaced, as this is a coming of age where sexuality is incidental and the genesis of conflict occurs elsewhere. Colia says within his director’s statement that his “wildly personal” Griffin in Summer is “not my exact autobiography,” but there is an underlying obsession with this story as this is Colia’s second time covering a story of unrequited teen crush. His 2017 short film ‘Alex and the handyman used this storyline while also featuring an alcoholic parent.

As far as art that helps process trauma goes, if this work has helped verbalize his childhood, good for him. As far as Griffin in Summer goes, there are points for Brad’s ludicrously pretentious YouTube video, which marks itself as the only truly funny scene due to Teague’s commitment to the bit. But sadly – and it brings me no pleasure to write how little I enjoyed this –  this is an unremarkable and awkward comedy that is tonally inverted on itself, with a lead character that is almost unbearable. For what charm the cast can muster, the character of Griffin is at war with the script as well as his impending puberty. 

Griffin in Summer recently premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival.

Learn more about the comedy at the Tribeca site for the title.

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