Based on real-life events, “Summer of ’67” underscores the pain, hope, and uncertainty experienced by three women and their loved ones during the Viet Nam era. The film makes no judgments on the war. Instead, it shows us the comforting power of faith and the loving support of friends and family in rescuing us from despair.
Touching lives in ways expected and unexpected, “Summer of 67” reveals how a war forced many young couples to make uncomfortable and often life-altering decisions. The film segues from couple to couple, exploring often-tenuous relationships that verge on collapse as family tensions rise to the surface.
“Summer of ’67” opens tragically as a young grief-stricken mother types a suicide letter. Her adolescent daughters Milly and Kate watch then turn away as she commits the fateful act. Fast forward to 1965 as Milly (Rachel Schrey), now a young wife and mother, deals with her mother-in-law Joanna (Mimi Sagadin). And there’s Milly’s husband Gerald (Cameron Gilliam), who ekes out a living as a factory worker. Marital strains over money add to the growing tension between them. But writer/director Sharon Wilharm knows when to add comic relief in an otherwise bleak film. She uses Joanna to full effect, creating an off-kilter looney character grounded in parental wit.
Gerald is a bit of a momma’s boy (he agrees to fix his mother’s TV before going on his honeymoon with Milly). The young lad may have his faults, but his heart’s in the right place. Bound by a sense of duty and unable to find a better job as a draft-eligible young man, Gerald enlists in the Navy. He’s ordered to serve aboard the ill-fated USS Forestal, a ship that didn’t fare so well during the war. Here again, humor lightens the load, as when Milly awkwardly announces she’s pregnant for all to hear in a crowded restaurant.
Standoffish Kate (Bethany Davenport) seems initially reluctant to start a relationship with likable Peter (Christopher Dalton). Both are high school juniors and he feels duty bound to enlist. After he finally wins her over, she convinces him to go to college. At this point, the Kate-Peter matchup appears just short of a storybook romance. But when Peter announces that he too has enlisted in the Navy, she seeks refuge from the possible pain of losing him by hooking up with hippie Van (Sam Brooks). At this point, we’re taken back to headbands and paisley shirts, poetically rebellious guitar solos, and VW minibusses. After protesting with signs and watching hippies spit on soldiers, Kate has had enough and becomes a “candy striper” nurse.
Ruby Mae (Sharonne Lanier) is the film’s common sense anchor. Her nuggets of boyfriend advice to Kate are well received. A true believer, Ruby has an endearing moment in Church when she prays for a “good man” to come into her life. But the good Lord giveth and he taketh away. She finds true love with groundskeeper Reggie (Jerrold Edwards) only to have him drafted. Ruby’s faith appears the strongest as she writes letters to Reggie even after learning that he may be missing in action. “God knows where he is. He’ll get the letter to Reggie one way or another,” she says to Millie.
Wilharm knows that the scale of her film is small. and she keeps things as intimate as a stage play. Relationships are unlayered and not buried in subtext. Problems are solved by the good Lord and not visits to a therapist. It’s how Mainstreet America deals with life, love, and tragedy.
Graduation speaker (Robert Thomason) delivers a moving speech that exemplifies this way of life. To the young men and women about to face the uncertainty of war, he announces, “Once war enters your life, you’re never the same. But God is always bigger than what you may fear.”
“Summer of ’67” correctly reflects the era’s mise-en-scène. Cinematographer Fred Wilharm captures the ambiance of late 60s USA. The set design is classic late 60s, awash in pastels, florals, and plastic—with soap operas on tiny TVs accompanied by organ music. Race relations at the time are addressed with Ruby as a housekeeper, Reggie as a groundskeeper, and both black and white ministers addressing their congregations in separate buy equally uplifting sermons. While the soundtrack imitates a 60s feel, a little Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan or something from The Doors would have helped a bit.
The acting is a bit stiff in some scenes. But overall, “Summer of ’67” delivers what’s necessary to carry its central message. Finally, it’s refreshing to see a dramatic film deal with loving relationships without showing young couples engaged in sex, smoking grass or cavorting about nude for shock value. On a side note, writer/director Sharon Wilharm’s father, Sylvin Ray Campbell, served on the carrier Forestal, as did Petty Officer Don Day, who plays a Navy Officer in the film.