Part road movie, part romance, part drama about overcoming grief, Summer Coda is the striking debut feature film by writer/director Richard Gray. Rachael Taylor (Cedar Boys) plays Heidi, a young woman who has travelled from her home in Nevada, USA to Mildura in country Victoria, Australia. Arriving just in time to attend the funeral of her father, whom see hasn’t seen since she was 7-years-old, Heidi finds companionship in Michael (Alex Dimitriades, Head On) a local orange grower who plays hosts to an eclectic group of travelling fruit pickers each year. What unravels is a gentle and extremely engaging story about a pair of immensely likeable people who are able to find solace from their respective pain through their growing unspoken attraction for one another.
The most immediately striking thing about Summer Coda is its ability to convey a wealth of story and character information visually. While so many contemporary films seem to fall into the trap of over explaining everything Summer Coda is a film that is confident enough to treat its audience with integrity by (mostly) allowing the visuals to tell the story.
The visuals are also absolutely stunning to look at. Cinematographer Greg de Marigny has composed every shot exquisitely and the lighting in this film is close to perfect. So much thought has gone into how the colour and texture of the light will generate various moods and sensations throughout various sections of the film. Every shot is consistently beautiful and Summer Coda conveys a terrific sense of place. There are moments that are reminiscent of Terrance Malick’s masterpiece Days of Heaven while other moments strongly evoke the films of Bernardo Bertolucci.
As visually rich as it is, this is not a film that is stylistically self-conscious and the focus is on the human drama between Heidi and Michael, with both Taylor and Dimitriades delivering extremely strong performances. Dimitriades demonstrated just how electrifying an actor he can be in Ana Kokkinos’s Head On but in Summer Coda he proves that he is also very capable of giving a powerfully restrained performance. The dynamic between the pair is very convincing and their relationship evolves in a way that feels completely natural and convincing.
Not every scene in Summer Coda works, with an early bar fight scene in particular feeling at odds with the tone of the rest of the film. However, for the most part this is an extremely enjoyable film that will seduce audiences with its blend of appealing characters, glorious locations and an intelligent story about loss and love.