Artwork by Freya Ward-Lowery
The Summer Slacker movie is a genre I have created to describe some of my favourite films, which all fall into similar themes. It’s not necessarily about summer or slackers. What I really want to pin point and to describe is the sort of teen film that takes place in a liminal space – a between period. the internet defines liminality as:
“liminality (from the Latin word līmen, meaning “a threshold”) is the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of rituals, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the ritual is complete.”
For a teen film, the ritual is coming of age, self discovery, and the liminal space is the long, looming summer, often after graduation or before the beginning of college or school. It’s a kind of waiting period.
My sister (a soon to be anthropologist, who coined the phrase ‘summer slacker’) said: ‘it’s just when kids have a lot of time on their hands’. Exploring boredom, self identity and teen hood in summer is what defines a summer slacker movie for me. Often the conclusion of this kind of film is self-discovery, maturity – often romantic, sexual or to do with identity and one’s personal philosophy.
What makes this sub-genre any different to a coming of age film? It’s the feeling of a film in the vacuum of a summer holiday, or an in-between space. A coming of age film can take place at any time – during the school year, during a period of crisis, but the summer slacker is a specific liminal space that is more than just the liminal space of the teenage years.
In order to differentiate this subgenre from the usual coming of age film, here are a few good examples that I love.
There’s something quintessentially summery about public swimming pools and teenage lifeguards, and The To Do List has both, as the essential summer slacker movie. It begins with the heroine of the story, Brandy, graduating from high school and realising she knows nothing about sex, and setting out on a quest for knowledge. The film is refreshing and delightful, especially to see a female character take control of her own sexuality – a sister literally doing it for herself. It attempts to subvert the sexist double standard which views women as either frigid virgins or whores. Ultimately it is fearless, hilarious and brilliant.
This film is a liminal space in itself – it exists in an in-between, an away from home that doesn’t feel like a home. It’s about dealing with the jerk that is your mom’s boyfriends, shaking out of grumpy teen awkwardness and finding a Dad, within yourself or in others. This film reinforces the idea that summer slacker films must have a least one large body of water in them – it has both a beach and a water theme park full of dry, sarcastic characters who speak in pithy one liners.
Say Anything begins with graduation and plays out during a long summer of uncertainty about the future. It’s a love story of the two principle characters growing up, finding their own paths in life, and trying to make important decisions about their lives.
I love this film’s depictions of friendship between men and women, and its portrayal of boys who have no female friends as losers who hang out in the dingy areas of town on a Saturday night.
This is also a brilliant example of when a female character who is exalted, put on a pedestal, made unreachable and a subject of jealousy or maybe hostility is made real and multi-faceted.
Unashamedly silly and great. Can a film so totally not serious be a part of something so formal as a genre? YES! Summer Camp is the ultimate liminal space and for me is a weird land I will never inhabit. This American Life did an episode on Camp which was very revealing of the strange feelings I have about it. WHAS has all the ingredients of a summer slacker, including several slackers – my favourite of them being Paul Rudd’s character, the terrible boyfriend. The fact that it all takes place within the space of a single day feels very appropriate to the idea of liminal spaces.