Film Reviews: “Gasoline Rainbow” and “Happy Campers” — Superior Summer Flicks Tinged with Loss

By Neil Giordano

Two films about the glories of summer are infused with bittersweet reminders of the reality of social class in America.

Gasoline Rainbow is available to stream on Mubi. Happy Campers is scheduled for a limited theatrical release in July and will then be on VOD.

A scene from Gasoline Rainbow.

With the summer solstice just past, two new films, one documentary and one documentary-style feature, offer lively reflections on the season, infusing their odes to fun in the sun with bittersweet reminders of the reality of social class in America.

Gasoline Rainbow isn’t technically a summer movie, but it has the cred: the plot coincides with the season and it deals with life right after high school graduation. Made by the Ross Brothers, whose past efforts tread the line between documentary and fiction, the feature will evoke, at least for some, the nostalgia, joy, and apprehension that accompany the genre. The film’s stripped-down vérité aesthetic affectionately dramatizes the “fuck it” mentality of five recent high school graduates who have been living in the middle of nowhere. These kids know there’s a big world outside their small rural eastern Oregon town, and they are ready to see what it has to offer. They hop in a van and, like so many Americans before them, head west for something new — or at least something different than what they grew bored with before.

Gasoline Rainbow might best be characterized by what it isn’t than what it is. Your typical teen-centered film sets out to glamorize or lampoon its protagonists; this effort refuses to generalize. These are not cool kids, nerds, or misfits. They are normal teens, but far from generic. Played by a multiracial crew of nonprofessional actors (whose names are identical to their characters — Micah, Makai, Nichole, Tony, and Nathalie), the group’s exploits don’t draw on the contrived and familiar plots of teen movies. No lingering romances, no quests to get laid, no jocks-versus-nerds, no alcohol-fueled keggers (well, not exactly). They are not out to have “adventures,” and that gives Gasoline Rainbow a convincing sense of reality.

The kids’ pasts have not been idyllic paeans to youth and freedom. We hear suggestions of darkness, addiction, and family trauma. Likewise, their individual futures seem cloudy — if at all comprehensible. There’s scattered talk of college, of the military, of work, but all of that feels hazy and undetermined. They are apprehensive — but content to let it be. What matters to them is living in the now, which seems to call for aimless experiences of self-discovery in the presence of one another. They share a mutual desire — to avoid thinking about what comes next. And that goal demands that they track down a mythical beach party somewhere on the coast.

Given its emphasis on the ordinary, Gasoline Rainbow is understandably episodic. Shrouded in the haze of passed joints, conversations wander in wayward road-trip ways. Flashes of natural beauty appear through the van’s windows; the kids stop and enjoy the views. Once the van is left behind they connect with hobos and ride the rails, then they make friends with a series of named and unnamed people, young and old, in Portland. The party on the beach isn’t exactly what they — or we — expected.

There were probably hair and makeup professionals involved, but these kids look like kids: varying traces of acne, bad hairstyles, and rumpled clothes. None of them are attractive in a movie star way — but their youthful brio appeals. Gasoline Rainbow is an impressive look at life when it journeys into a crossroad, a celebration of youth in all its imperfection, exultant and terrifying.

A scene from Happy Campers.

The remarkable documentary Happy Campers contains a similar vibe — nostalgia giving way to apprehension. We’re mostly among adults here, on vacation in an encampment of trailers, converted RVs, and beach shacks on the coast of Virginia near Chincoteague. Summer for them, as for most of us, means slower times; in this case, not just ditching responsibilities, but letting it all hang out. That many live in the area for all or part of the season suggests that this crack at easy livin’ is their one respite from more complicated, hard-working lives the rest of the year.

The hangout doesn’t look special. As one of the denizens says, affectionately, they’re happy to spend time in “the armpit of America.” But for these seasonal pilgrims it is a magical place. Families have been coming there for generations — roots have been set down, histories have been made. The decorations in their homes-away-from-home range from the intentionally kitschy to the deeply personal. They talk of the past as if these summers were the greatest times in their lives, friendships forged and still thriving, deceased family members who loved the place like no other. The getaway was blissful, a time of old-fashioned, no-frills fun: fishing for crabs, eating on paper plates, homemade fireworks displays for the Fourth. A distinct working-class vibe among the crowd is a reminder that these are people who don’t use “summer” as a verb. Anyone who’s spent time in certain parts of Cape Cod will feel the rhythms of these lives almost viscerally.

All summers must come to an end, but this one is interrupted earlier than usual and in a traumatic way. It leaks out that developers have purchased the encampment’s land. This will be their last carefree whirl in the sun. A flurry of mixed emotions ensues: anger, sadness, mournful remembrance. As the vacationers pack up their belongings for the last time, they realize that it may be the “armpit of America,” but it was their armpit. The movie’s commentary on class is subtly underlined here. The place is not about owning property but owning experience. The summer residents know they cannot fight well-heeled economic forces that are out to make a buck — but they worry they may never find another place like this.

Director Amy Nicholson (whose short Pickle is always worth a rewatch) excels in reflecting on the fragility of what we take for granted. Shots linger on images that might seem familiar, even cliché — sunsets, children playing, boats on the water. Yet here they evoke an unnerving sense of frailty, of a paradise lost for people on the lower rung.

Neil Giordano teaches film and creative writing in Newton. His work as an editor, writer, and photographer has appeared in Harper’s, Newsday, Literal Mind, and other publications. Giordano previously was on the original editorial staff of DoubleTake magazine and taught at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University.

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