Review of Sharon Wilharm’s Summer of ’67

Developmentally Edited by Alexandra Hidalgo
Copy Edited and Posted by Megan Elias

Summer of ‘67 (2018). 83 minutes. Written and Directed by Sharon Wilharm. Featuring: Rachel Schrey, Bethany Davenport, Sharonne Lanier, Cameron Gilliam, Christopher Dalton, Jerrold Edwards, and Sam Brooks.

Though the word “summer” obtrudes itself ostentatiously into the title, the film Summer of ’67 is more a study of the cold, grave effects of war and death rather than the sunny exploration of women growing up in the swinging decade of love. Repercussions of war vibrate through two generations of a family, as the movie begins with two young girls who witness the suicide of their mother. These two motherless children are raised by a disabled Korean War hero father and later fall in love with their own soldiers of Vietnam.

We meet Milly (Rachel Schrey) again as an adult on her wedding day. Her groom shortly thereafter enlists in the war, leaving Milly to live with his overprotective mother who is in competition with her for her son’s love. Schrey gives a believable performance as a woman afraid to speak her mind, going along with decisions that have been made for her, but coming across as strong for a woman in that decade. She portrays the role of wife, daughter, sister and stranger, skillfully balancing the nuances of each.

Milly’s younger sister Kate (Bethany Davenport) has a boyfriend who also chooses to enlist despite being fully aware of his girlfriend’s peacenik ways. Both men are stationed on the USS Forrestal—a supercarrier destined for tragedy. Davenport is well cast, allowing us to feel the inner war/peace/love dilemma in her defiant character’s head as she fights with her man about his decision.

Filmmaker Sharon Wilharm has a personal connection to this story, as her dad was on the USS Forrestal when it caught fire in July of 1967 and she tells the story through her tight Christian filmmaking lens. Though the story mimics a soap opera structure similar to those that Milly’s mother-in-law watches addictively, the tempo is slow and melancholy, with obvious religious messages of hope during wartime. The film (or is it their religion?) demand that the women as daughters be stronger than their mothers, as wives accept their men’s decisions unwaveringly, and as nurturers resuscitate their love through all suffering.

Cinematographer Fred Wilharm (in one of his many behind-the-scenes roles) trains our eyes to not just look at the women characters throughout this film, but to gaze into them and to feel their conflict. The lighting and set design welcome in the spirit of a more hopeful 1960s, allowing the primary yellows, reds, and blues to pop, while the camera almost contradicts this optimism by lingering close on the women as they face tragedy, conflict, and trauma in nearly every scene.   

The sermons in the church that Milly and Kate attend are a bit too on point with the girls’ emotional plights and go on way too long, but they succeed in giving introspective to the girls’ thoughts. One wonders their importance, however, as the heart of the film is translated fluently by the family’s black maid, Ruby Mae. It is she who consistently guides the girls with her inborn strength to a deeper faith. Her power is nearly visible to the viewer’s eye. This is completely accredited to the masterful acting of Sharonne Lanier. She breathes the character to life and we see her ability and her conviction in every pore as she acts in the role. She commands each scene with the soft power that women are bred to evoke, making it clear to us that it is her character that brings this story from one of tragedy to one of faith. Ruby Mae herself does meet the man she’s been praying for, but he is very soon drafted—making him the only male character whose attendance in Vietnam was not by choice. This does introduce the state of race relations in the nation, but the filmmaker doesn’t press upon the issue, leaving it to the viewer to decipher the symbolic cultural implications.

The women are also expected to try and understand their mother’s suicide without ever daring to ask their father, who sits in his wheelchair watching their worlds play out with a distant warmth. It is emotional to see him, alone in a room of red, with his wheelchair and face lit by a shimmering red lamp shade. The monochromatic color of the set, his blatant physical injury and actor Jeff Lester’s silent sneer almost predict the tragedy about to come. He would have been an obvious choice to guide his daughters with wisdom through the burdens of war and love and death of which he has himself survived. The father, instead, plays more of a shadowing ghost of wars and lives past—always lurking behind the girls, but more in a matter-of-fact way rather than a menacing one. His “que sera” attitude forebears the mistakes their husbands and sons will also make—mistakes that more women will have to combat.

Wilharm never shies away from death or pain, hurling misfortune at the women in a majority of scenes, but she also treats her characters with compassion.Through her veteran filmmaking eye, each scene is highly-detailed in color, lighting, and camera angle. She doesn’t need fancy camera movements or angles, but lets the camera stay close and steady so she can get the story out. The juxtaposition of conflict and bright primary colors keeps it rooted in the sixties as well as in the season.

Wilharm breathes an aspiration into the film that life may be harsh but with the right faith, her characters will come out on the other side—a little worse for wear and even cynical maybe, but alive and proud and with more depth and force to them. The women in this film, in this decade, use that strength to merely survive, leaving the viewer to wonder how a modern generation of women would use this newfound strength. Will future women in this family harness this power to challenge decisions, fight adversity, or change their world? Generations and decades will tell but, according to Wilharm, hope is in the air.

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