Cartwheeling stunt airplanes aren’t the only things that soar and plummet in “The Summer of Sangaile,” a sensuous and sensitive teen romance in which the real roller-coaster ride is that of turbulent adolescent emotions. In her sophomore feature, Paris-based Lithuanian filmmaker Alante Kavaite (2006’s “Ecoute le temps”) returns to her home turf for this heartfelt snapshot of summer love and self-discovery, enhanced by lots of breathtaking scenery and two hugely appealing lead performances by newcomers Julija Steponaityte and Aiste Dirziute. Further festival play, especially in LGBT and emerging filmmaker showcases, seem assured for this winner of the directing prize in Sundance’s international dramatic competition.
Though it seems sure to inspire comparisons with “Blue Is the Warmest Color” by sheer virtue of its focus on a same-sex romance between two young women, “The Summer of Sangaile” otherwise bears little tonal or stylistic resemblance to Abdellatif Kechiche’s controversial Palme d’Or winner, and should go down easier with feminist critics who took issue with the French director’s gaze upon his actresses. Their eyes first meet at a local aerobatics show, where Auste (Dirziute), a canteen worker at the local power plant, sells a raffle ticket to Sangaile (Steponaityte), a tall, slender 17-year-old spending the summer at her family’s lake house. The attraction, like so many seasonal flings in life and in cinema, movies quickly from mild crush to all-consuming infatuation, with the free-spirited Auste very much leading the charge.
Outside her dreary day job, Auste lives in a bohemian world of her own creation, designing her own clothing and, eventually, photographing Sangaile modeling it in a series of stylized poses. In turn, the somewhat shy, withdrawn Sangaile — who dreams of being a stunt pilot but is beset by paralyzing bouts of vertigo, and punishes herself with self-inflicted cuts — begins to emerge from her shell. When the characters finally fall into each other’s arms, Kavaite films the sex discreetly, almost abstractly, as a tumble of long limbs and sun-kissed flesh in ecstatic motion.
Kavaite is a master of shifting, quicksilver moods, and whatever “The Summer of Sangaile” may lack in originality and dramatic urgency, it makes up for in a lightly intoxicating atmosphere. Summer, indeed, is as much the star of the movie as Auste and Sangaile themselves, the long, lazy days stretching out slowly in a way that recalls Eric Rohmer’s summertime films, as the characters look on from rooftops, frolic in the woods, or otherwise surrender themselves to the pull of nature and the season.
Sangaile flirts with a local boy (Laurynas Jurgelis), only to return to Auste’s more comforting embrace. Parents and other representatives of the grown-up world are kept largely at arm’s length, save for a pointed yet tender scene between Sangaile and her mother (Jurate Sodyte), a former dancer, about the rewards derived from taking risks. In the film’s most dynamic sequence, Auste succeeds in convincing Sangaile to go for a test flight in an aerobatic plane, and the resulting whir of images, shown from Sangaile’s alternately exhilarated and vertiginous p.o.v (and inventively shot by d.p. Dominique Colin from a battery of airborne cameras), makes a fine metaphor for the disorienting rush of first love.
At its best, “The Summer of Sangaile” captures the special intensity of those relationships in which everything seems to fade away save for the other person. When they are onscreen together, the gamine Dirziute and the hypnotic, blazingly blue-eyed Steponaityte pull us so deeply into their shared rapture that, indeed, we lose all sense of which way is up.