Winner of a special mention from the Berlinale Generation KPlus’ adult jury, the family-friendly, light drama “My Extraordinary Summer With Tess” is straightforward youth cinema with surprising emotional depth. Based on a prize-winning novel by Anna Woltz, a beloved Dutch writer of work for young readers, it explores family relationships and emphasizes the importance of human connection. Fronted by two charismatic tween performers, the title marks the feature debut of Dutch helmer Steven Wouterlood, who already holds an international Emmy Kids Award. The New York Intl. Children’s Film Festival will host the film’s international premiere at the end of February.
The story unfolds from the perspective of sensitive 10-year-old Sam (Sonny van Utteren, winning in his first film role) whose voiceover musings not only provide the narrative’s momentum and glue but also articulate the film’s ultimate lessons. Sam, his parents (Tjebbo Gerritsma, Suzan Boogaerdt) and older brother Jorre (Julian Ras) are on a week’s vacation on a Dutch island, but things are hardly idyllic. Jorre breaks his ankle; his mom is plagued by migraines; and Sam, a morbidly imaginative kid, embarks on a course of “aloneness training” to be prepared in case everyone he cares about dies before him. But things change when Sam is swept off his feet by the cyclonic personality of 11-year-old Tess (Josephine Arendsen), the daughter of staunchly feminist single mother Ida (Jennifer Hoffman), one of the island’s medics.
Initially abrupt, preoccupied and not particularly sympathetic, Tess seems like a miniature manic pixie dream girl. But as Sam (and viewers) learn the reasons behind her peculiar behavior, her obsession with Hugo (Johannes Kienast) and Elise (Terence Schreurs), the attractive young couple staying at her family’s guest house, becomes clear. And Sam becomes a (sometimes unwilling) accomplice in her quest to decide if Hugo is father material.
Meanwhile, another island dweller, the grizzled beachcomber Hille (Hans Dagelet), a widower, provides Sam with a valuable lesson about what’s most important in life, after saving him when his aloneness training goes awry.
Working from a screenplay by Laura van Dijk, director Wouterlood establishes and sustains a non-sentimental tone that focuses on the relationship between Sam and Tess — one unencumbered with sexual tension — as well as Sam’s concerns with mortality and his peculiar knowledge of the natural world (“Herrings talk to each other by farting,” he notes). It’s a tone that will find favor with audiences the age of the protagonists.
The island location, with its dusty sand dunes, waving reeds and surprisingly empty beaches, seems timeless. So, too, could the action if it weren’t for the brief use of a laptop computer and cell phone, and mention of Facebook. That the kids are out on their own for long stretches harks back to a simpler, less wary period, as does Sam’s family playing guessing games or going bowling. The slightly soft-edged lensing by Sal Kroonenberg adds to the nostalgic feeling — likewise the ancient caravans selling French fries or the Dutch seaside snack of kibbeling that are part of the action. After theatrical exposure, the production package will look equally fine on the small screen.