' ' Cinema Romantico: Summer of Dreams

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Summer of Dreams

Debbie Gibson is giving it her all in the Hallmark Channel’s “Summer of Dreams” (2016), that’s for sure, and in giving it her all she is, frankly, giving almost too much. This is maximum over-acting. And that is not an insult. For every Hallmark Channel movie featuring a present, considered Alicia Witt performance there are 22 more with fly-by-night-leading turns, so many unremembered acting cars whooshing past you on the interstate, never mind the feckless Ken Dolls from office furniture catalogues meant to approximate co-stars. But Gibson, bless her heart, is here for director Mike Rohl, punctuating every one-liner she is made to utter with an over-eager laugh and refusing to remain wooden by outfitting performance with all sorts of eager bits of physical business that might’ve made a Billy Wilder tsk-tsk but probably only brightened Rohl’s day. I once listened to Brian Koppelman interview Gibson and she kept peppering her sentences with high notes and breaking into bits of songs throughout, as if what she wanted to explain she could not do so by simply speaking. For the better, she brings that air to “Summer of Dreams.”

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A pop singer who struck it rich young in the 80s has failed to musically progress with the times and is ditched by her record label. That is how “Summer of Dreams” starts, though in this case it is not Debbie Gibson who is ditched but Debbie, ahem, Taylor (Gibson) in a scene where the record label exec telling her to hit the road looks like he’s about nineteen years old which is one of the movie’s most wonderful bits, evincing an industry where the (really) young is ousting the old. In no time, Debbie’s romantic relationship with some dull so & so has gone under and she is forced to move out of her apartment and flee the city, leaving her with nowhere to turn but her hometown of Youngstown, Ohio.

That’s where Debbie’s sister Denise (Pascale Hutton) still resides, with her husband and young daughter, and some of the best stuff, in a manner of speaking, in “Summer of Dreams” is the standoffish way that Denise greets her sister upon coming home, seeming to try to usher her out the door before she’s even walked through it. This behavior stems, we learn, from Debbie’s self-absorption, one that no doubt led to and was furthered by pop stardom, and which Gibson’s actorly over-eagerness plays straight into, talking and moving so fast when she first arrives that it evinces an obliviousness to the lack of welcoming warmth. This character defect will have to be corrected, of course, and the device through which it is (or, is intended to be) is Denise, a teacher at the local high school, getting her sister the job as choir teacher. It is contrivance, to which the critic can only say, yeah, so?

This means Debbie plays the role of Dewey Finn (Jack Black) in “School of Rock”, faltering and then picking herself back up again as she molds this gang of singing youths, though she also falls in love with the guidance counselor (Robert Gant). The latter actually puts into context how nice it was that “School of Rock” did not force a love interest onto Dewey; his love was only for the kids. And there emerges the preeminent paradox of “Summer of Dreams” — that is, even as Debbie is supposed to realize that everything is not about her, it sort of still is all about her. “Lose the hand gestures, Mariah,” she instructs one young burgeoning diva, which is far and away the best line in show, and the ultimate Maybe You Should Look In The Mirror moment.

Rather than standing back and letting the kids take center stage, the kids, upon discovering who their teacher is, push Debbie to the center and let her take over as a means to re-ignite her career, a mixed message that the movie either does not realize or does not care is happening. Not that you care either. Why would you? You come to “Summer of Dreams” for Debbie Gibson, and for a cover of “Only in my Dreams.” All kids are special, yes, but Gibson remains the youngest female artist to write, produce and perform a Hot 100 chart-topper. Can any of the kids in the choir say the same? Didn’t think so.

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