‘Summer Solstice’ Is a Relatable Trans Indie About Masc Insecurity and Nightmare Cis Girls

Filmmakers had been capturing the minutiae of daily life decades before the mumblecore movement of the mid-2000s. From dialogue-heavy slices of life by Éric Rohmer to the sustained silences of Chantal Akerman, from the independent cinema of John Cassavetes to 90s festival hits like Clerks, filmmakers have long been interested in small human moments. In fact, you can trace this style back before cinema to 19th century playwright Anton Chekhov whose work prioritized humanity over heightened drama.

But it’s true that digital cameras made filmmaking more accessible and therefore this realist approach more common. And it’s also true that before Joe Swanberg and the Duplass Brothers were making mumblecore, trans guys Harry Dodge and Silas Howard made their own digital slice of life, By Hook or By Crook.

To say there haven’t been many films of this nature made by and about trans people in the two decades since would be disrespectful to all the independent trans filmmakers making short form work. And yet in the naturalist feature space, trans people have largely been trapped in the same overwrought tropes.

Despite its cis protagonist, that finally started to change with Rhys Ernst’s Adam. In the half a decade since, it’s been followed by even less plot-driven work like Mutt and the remarkable family snapshot Something You Said Last Night.

Noah Schamus’ Summer Solstice is here to take this even further. It’s a film that dares to grant the quietest dramas of a trans person’s life the importance of the screen. It’s a low-budget film that embraces its limitations, capturing its excellent writing and performances with a simple yet confident form.

From its opening moments, the film places itself in opposition to the expected. Trans actor Leo is auditioning for a terrible trans part. He’s giving a monologue about the horror of surgery only to be quickly dismissed for failing to find truth within words that hold none.

This will not be that kind of movie. It won’t even be like the better — if not great — series he has a callback for the following week. Instead we’ll watch Leo play zip zap zop in an acting class and then finger his hot classmate Alice before she goes on a date with a cis man.

We’ll learn this dynamic with Alice is a pattern when there’s a knock at his door. It’s Eleanor, Leo’s former straight girl best friend who sucks the air out of every room with loud heterosexuality and genuine charm. She has access to a house upstate for the weekend and drags Leo along. He didn’t know how to say no to her when they were gal pals and he hasn’t learned how since.

Leo is pointedly passive and it’s a testament to Bobbi Salvör Menuez’s performance and Schamus’ direction that his interiority remains ever-present. To be shy or unsure is not the same as being flat or empty. The film had me screaming at the screen for Leo to not say or do something as often as it had me wishing he would take action.

It also helps that the supporting actors are perfectly cast. Monica Sanborn as Alice and Marianne Rendón as Eleanor are two very different kinds of cis girl heartbreakers. Alice gives just the right amount of nothing while Eleanor gives all too much.

It would be easy to dismiss Eleanor, a woman who says she’s queering heterosexuality, but the film honors her bond with Leo and her own personal struggles. This is not a film with villains. Even Alice is upfront with Leo about her desires — he just hopes they’ll change.

The film finds an alternative to these cis women in queer trans guy Oliver. Mila Myles plays him with a present yet relaxed confidence. He’s a middle ground between Alice and Eleanor — and something else altogether.

Menuez doesn’t just have chemistry with their three love interests. They have a specific chemistry attuned to each relationship. With Sanborn, it’s an old awkwardness, with Oliver it’s a new awkwardness, and with Rendón it’s a deep bond that had me rooting for them to hook up as ill-advised as it would be.

It’s this bond between Leo and Eleanor, the rapport of Menuez and Rendón, that makes the film so compelling even as the drama remains small.

It helps that the film, while certainly sweet and sincere, is also really funny. The way Alice after sex says, “I feel like I came… so close… to booking. My agent said they pinned me” or the way Eleanor flirts with a random cis man by saying, “Not to get too Kerouac but the freedom of the open road really frees me.”

That’s the thing about committing to the subtleties of real life. With enough skill to do it well, a film can be funny and emotional and thought-provoking without much happening at all.

Summer Solstice is now playing in NYC at the IFC Center. It opens next week in LA at the Laemmle Glendale and will continue to expand. 

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Drew Burnett Gregory

Drew is a Brooklyn-based writer, filmmaker, and theatremaker. She is a Senior Editor at Autostraddle with a focus in film and television, sex and dating, and politics. Her writing can also be found at Bright Wall/Dark Room, Cosmopolitan UK, Refinery29, Into, them, and Knock LA. She was a 2022 Outfest Screenwriting Lab Notable Writer and a 2023 Lambda Literary Screenwriting Fellow. She is currently working on a million film and TV projects mostly about queer trans women. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

Drew Burnett has written 566 articles for us.

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