The Japanese mother of a 6-year-old British brat is allowed four days with him on her ex’s family yacht before losing visiting rights forever in Leonardo Guerra Seragnoli’s stylish but over-calculated debut, “Last Summer.” Enigmatically withholding vital info — why was she considered an unfit mother? — makes identification difficult, which begins as a deliberate ploy but backfires partly due to the airlessness of it all, not to mention the boy’s entitled obnoxiousness and the crew’s one-note hostility. Co-scripted with Italo comic artist Igort, in collaboration with the international bestselling Japanese novelist Banana Yoshimoto, the pic will spark interest thanks to the latter’s contribution, though beyond fests, “Last Summer” will struggle to produce heat.
The intriguing internationality of it all should generate press: Star Rinko Kikuchi (“Babel”) mixes with a cast of Dutch, Danish and British actors mostly speaking English, guided by an Italo director partly educated in the States. Guerra Seragnoli wants to play off this clash of cultures, very much positioning Kikuchi’s character as the untrustworthy outsider who turns into the main object of identification, but that, too, is essentially a cliche, and the script brings little else to the table.
At least the start upends expectations, offering the promise of a more intriguing work than is ultimately delivered. Eva (Laura Sofia Bach) climbs out of a crystalline sea onto a sleek yacht, sits down next to Alex (Yorick van Wageningen, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”), and, via body language and glances, engages in a power struggle of sorts that wordlessly reveals heaps about their relationship (unfortunately never further developed). Auds assume the two are the owners of this super-luxury craft, but no: He’s the captain and she’s the chief steward, uncomfortably awaiting the arrival of their boss’ former daughter-in-law, Naomi (Kikuchi).
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Everyone is tense when Naomi arrives: It’s been at least three years since she was onboard, and the crew, presumably told to treat her with suspicion, are all new to her. Then her son, Ken (Ken Brady), boards, coddled by steward/babysitter Rebecca (Lucy Griffiths) and ignoring his mother. A tense power struggle ensues, in which the crew ensure that Naomi and Ken are never alone together, and Naomi tries desperately to connect with her son, knowing that after their four days together she’ll lose visitation rights.
The architecture of the yacht — coldly sleek, flashily rich — allows Guerra Seragnoli to play with the isolating spaces of the boat, whose interiors invariably see Naomi separated from the others, reflective of her pariah status. She, like the viewer, rather too conveniently overhears conversations among the crew that make clear her former in-laws’ distrust, communicated to the staff, yet the script never explains why she lost custody. At one moment she tells Ken she made bad decisions in her life, but of what kind? Everyone behaves as if she tried to murder the kid, though that’s a highly improbable conclusion.
Gradually, Naomi starts to win Ken over once she escapes the confines of the yacht. First on deck and then on the tender, the formerly supercilious child relaxes in his mother’s company, even replying to her in Japanese (slightly problematic, as it remains unclear how long they’ve been apart). As a theoretical exercise, this separation of inside-outside is an intriguing concept and certainly could have been used to powerful effect, but the less-than-forthcoming script, coupled with the artificially heightened level of tension, hinders identification in all but a few scenes.
Playing with silence isn’t the problem; it’s more the general lack of character development whenever there’s a conversation. In addition, a running subtheme involving pieces of fabric Naomi carefully guards seems to be fraught with meaning, yet when the purpose is revealed, its pseudo-poeticism falls flat. Far better a closeup of her dry-brushing her teeth with Ken’s toothbrush, as the one way of getting close to her child.
Kikuchi is allowed a degree of naturalness in her performance that is denied the others, whose every look and glare is overloaded with significance; Eva doesn’t simply turn, she jerks her head and body with military precision. As the only sympathetic character, despite an implication that puts her on a par with Medea, Naomi/Kikuchi provides the sole source of oxygen in this stiflingly artificial vacuum.
Visually, “Last Summer” begins almost like a perfume ad, all bright sun and gloss, and while the lensing brings something more substantial than mere surface shine, its hermeticism has a deadening effect. Shooting took place along the shores of Puglia, in a particularly uninteresting bit of coastline that at least has the advantage of not distracting from the narrative.