THE LAST SUMMER

beth lee


 

You know the feeling, summer starts to creep up on you, the weather warms, the sky clears and all you want to do is spend your days outside basking in the comforting warm glow of the sun. You become filled with grand ideas of summer adventures; you are convinced that this summer will be the Best Summer Yet. Just like the movies, with long days spent swimming, late nights spent with friends and maybe even a Grease-like summer romance thrown in. But then summer hits. The real burning hot, Australian summer and, if you’re like me, all your great ideas for summer fun disappear. All you want to do is stay cool, stay inside, stay alive. You leave the house as little as possible, only braving the sweltering heat for work, or when your friends convince you to come out with them. 

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Right now, the air is once again beginning to smell fresh and warm, the first signs of spring are creeping in here and there amongst Melbourne’s relapses into winter. As this summer approaches so too does the end of my Bachelors degree. The coming summer is one of liminality; it’s one of decisions to be made and paths to choose. As it nears ever closer I am reminded of a similarly liminal summer – the summer between the end of high school and the start of university. And, though three years have passed since, I felt so much older then. 

 

"But then summer hits. The real burning hot, Australian summer and, if you’re like me, all your great ideas for summer fun disappear. All you want to do is stay cool, stay inside, stay alive. You leave the house as little as possible, only braving the sweltering heat for work, or when your friends convince you to come out with them"

 

The summer of 2014/2015 after I graduated high school comes back to me in ragged fragments and blurry images. I remember the feeling of unbounded freedom, I remember finishing my last HSC exam and driving down the long, deserted country road home, music blaring, windows down. It was such a cliché but that’s why I did it. To evoke the feeling of those classic American teen films about high school and summer and coming of age. I’m reminded of a scene towards the end of The Perks of Being a Wallflower (dir. Stephen Chbosky, 2012), Charlie (Logan Lerman), a freshman, is with his senior friends when the bell rings to signal their last day of school, ever. Papers are thrown in the air, people stream through the hallways cheering and hugging and jumping up and down in excitement. It’s the picture perfect, cliché, happy end to school that never happens in real life, and so I made my own. Halsey’s Room 93 EP was my soundtrack, the Newell highway my stage, as I sped away from the past six years of my life trying to capture that feeling Perks talks about, the cheesy feeling of being “infinite”. 

The Perks of Being a Wallflower presents a very unapologetic picture of high school. The film focuses primarily on Charlie’s freshman year and his friends’ senior year. The teenagers are outsiders, “welcome to the island of misfit toys” Sam (Emma Watson) says to Charlie after he joins their group. Perks places a lot of emphasis on the significance of the end of high school but shows nothing of the summer after. The storyline skims across summer from graduation to Sam returning from college for a visit. “Well can I tell you something?” she says to Charlie, “I’ve been away for two months. It’s another world. And it gets better.” This trend of films presenting high school as a seemingly never ending waiting period till the next stage of your life bypasses summer. It shows life after high school as incredibly important and thus the last summer is either overlooked all together or shown as exceptionally significant. Often, when an entire movie focuses on this summer, it is the latter. The last summer is when everything changes, when you evolve into the person you couldn’t be within the constraints of high school. 

Towards the end of my liminal summer, as the Christmas tree was taken down and my possessions were packed away for my move to Melbourne, I felt like a Real Adult. I was about to leave my family home, my small hometown on the NSW/VIC border that nobody has ever heard of, and move to the city to start university. I was convinced it would be a summer I‘d never forget, but now I barely remember it. 

New Years Eve 2014 was one of my more enjoyable New Years Eve celebrations. Still in the party mood after our Schoolies trip two months earlier, and already feeling nostalgic for school, a group of friends and I went to Bundalong for New Years Eve. Bundalong is not a town; it's a place near the river with a pub. Each year the pub held a party with a DJ that was basically a right of passage for the teenagers of the area to go to as their first 18+ NYE. It was pretty messy if I’m honest. Porta-potties lining the fence, cops waiting just outside in case anything went wrong, no drinks cheaper than $10. It wasn’t a great introduction to drinking culture but it was very Australian, and very country Australia. Dirt swirled up under people’s feet as they danced the “Melbourne Shuffle” to shitty club remixes that were the coolest of cool in the country. We slept in a tent in a friend’s backyard and drank drinks that were full of sugar and tasted like lollies. I didn’t get the traditional New Years kiss that night but I danced and had fun and watched my friends laugh and dance and I felt nostalgic for the period in my life coming to an end. It’s funny how we complain about school while we’re there but in that last summer as we embrace our newfound freedom we feel weirdly sentimental for those times. Now, three years later, it’s just a time in my life I only look back on during those rare catch-ups with high school friends. 

I remember watching The To Do List (dir. Maggie Carey, 2013) around the time I finished year twelve, it felt extremely relevant to my life as it’s about the same summer I was about to experience; the last summer before university. The protagonist, Brandy (Aubrey Plaza), works as a lifeguard during the summer, I became obsessed with finding summer movies and lifeguard movies to watch. One other Staten Island Summer (dir. Rhys Thomas, 2015) also follows a lifeguard in the summer before he leaves for university, and The Lifeguard (dir. Liz W Garcia, 2013) follows a reporter who quits her job in New York and moves back home, working where she did in, you guessed it, the summer before university as a lifeguard. I decided that would be my summer plans, I would live in a movie and I would finally get a job. These films show summer in the most stylised summery way, lifeguards get paid to lounge by the pool, soaking up the rays and keeping an eye on the fluorescent chlorine water. Brandy in The To Do List spends her summer with a ragtag group of lifeguards, checking off her sexual ‘to do list’ to prepare herself for college. She goes through the classic ups and downs of the teen film genre: falling out with friends, breaking a boys heart, and losing her virginity. At the end of the film she has matured, she feels older and wiser than she did when she graduated only a few months earlier: she feels ready for college. I expected a similar summer. I already felt old and mature having graduated high school, driven away and never looked back. But that last summer wasn’t revolutionary, it didn’t change my life. If anything, that summer was stagnant, I simply lazed around waiting for the next chapter of my life to begin. I never had a summer like Brandy’s; I never became a lifeguard (the training days at the local pool were while I was away in Torquay for schoolies). So I spent my summer jobless, and didn’t go to the pool once. 

 

"But that last summer wasn’t revolutionary, it didn’t change my life. If anything, that summer was stagnant, I simply lazed around waiting for the next chapter of my life to begin. "

 

The summer did have shadows of a picture perfect movie summer. In January my mother, younger cousin and I went to my family holiday house in Bright for a week. We spent our days swimming in the sparkling waters of the Ovens River and playing Peking Duk’s ‘Take Me Over’ on repeat. We headed into town only to have cheap cups of tea and coffee at the one café with free Wi-Fi for our daily social media fix. Our nights were spent in the poorly air-conditioned lounge watching static-y TV, or sitting outside in the warm night air until the mosquitos chased us back indoors. 

At the end of the week my cousin’s mum, my dad and my brother came for the weekend. There are many things I’ve forgotten about that week and that summer but I’ll never forget the paella my dad cooked that night. He attempted to create traditional paella, which you apparently don’t stir at all during cooking. This is meant to create a kind of delicious crust around the bottom of the dish. My dad is usually quite a good cook but that paella is one of the worst things he’s ever made. My aunt still brings it up at Christmases. Instead of creating a delicious crust, the rice at the bottom of the pan was barely cooked, and super crunchy. My mum and aunt tried to be polite but my brother and I were savage, we did not let Dad off the hook. “This is worse than the mandarin muffins,” I told him, referring to his, until then, worst cooking faux pas of stodgy mandarin and chocolate muffins, which I loved to bring up whenever I could. 

Despite the almost inedible meal that was one of the better nights of the summer, and maybe the least like a scene from a movies. Summer films are mostly filled with teen fun, outdoor parties, beach parties, pool parties, bonfire parties, summer romances and the like. They never show the simple pleasures, sharing a meal with your family as you huddle around the kitchen table under the air conditioner, avoiding the heat and the mosquitos that come with the quintessential summer outdoor meal. 

But summer can’t always be cinematic and I spent many days simply lounging inside watching trashy TV (I think that year it was The Vampire Diaries or many Gossip Girl), or sleeping in until lunchtime and wasting most of the day. Some days I’d only leave the house to go down the street to visit Nanna for afternoon tea, most days I wouldn’t leave the house at all. Even with the Murray River being a short half an hour drive away I barely ever made the effort to go. 

Now, as I’m approaching another summer signalling the end of one stage of my life and the start of another I am filled with uncertainty. Where do I go form here? If I’m honest, I’m kind of terrified by the excess of freedom, the mass of options. Unlike the end of year twelve when I knew where I was going as the summer ended and the weather cooled, this coming summer I could do anything, I could do nothing. 

Dazed and Confused, (dir. Richard Linklater, 1993), follows a group of teenagers on their last day of their junior year of high school.  The ringleader, Randall ‘Pink’ Floyd, is caught, as protagonists often are, between two worlds: his ‘stoner’ friends and his football team. He struggles with whether he’ll return to the football team in his senior year. Similarly, I’m currently deciding what to do after this upcoming summer. I’ve decided to do a Masters, but I still keep saying I don’t know what I’m doing next year. What I should be telling people is that I don’t know if I’ve decided on the right thing. I’m worried I’m going to waste the next two years of my life and then end up merely picking up more shifts at my bar job and working there full time. Or worse, working hard for ten years then having a breakdown because I’m not in the career I want to be and moving back to my parents house in the country just like in The Lifeguard. Sometimes films aren’t always that great. (And sometimes I just overthink too much).

 

I still keep saying I don’t know what I’m doing next year. What I should be telling people is that I don’t know if I’ve decided on the right thing.


Leigh (Kristen Bell), the protagonist in The Lifeguard, returns to her summer job at the local pool in her hometown during a sabbatical from her career as a reporter in New York. Leigh immediately reverts to a state of perpetual summer and teen idleness. In returning to her lifeguard job and reconnecting with her high school friends who still live in town, she sets out to live a teen’s dream summer. Through Leigh’s affair with the high-school-aged son of the pool’s maintenance man, Jason (David Lambert), and his friend’s suicide, The Lifeguard looks at an adult (Leigh’s) problems through her desire to revert to a teenage state, whilst simultaneously looking at real teenagers and their real problems. Ultimately Leigh’s summer ends in sadness. She has to accept that she is an adult. She can’t go back to being a teenager, she can’t escape real life, and she can’t have the perfect summer. The perfect summer doesn’t exist. 

This upcoming summer does have promises of movie-like moments. My housemates and I are planning on driving the Great Ocean Road, which I’ve never done before. The classic summer road trip, picnics on the beach, music blaring as we drive through the dunes. But this summer also has evidence of Real Life creeping in. I just started an internship one day a week, which will be increasing to two days once I’ve finished university for the year. I have a bar job so that I am able to eat and pay my rent. As we near Christmas it will get busier and busier until I have barely a night free. This will be my second summer spent in Melbourne. I will have a few trips back to my hometown – for Christmas and to see my family and my dogs. I also hope to spend more time in Bright, soaking up the sun in the hammock, catching up on all the books I haven’t read, relishing the lack of Wi-Fi and phone service, enjoying the disconnect. But I’ve also come to accept that I won’t have a perfect movie summer, I know many of my days will be spent sweating at the kitchen table debating whether to turn on the air conditioner or save a few extra dollars. 

I think the problem with wanting your summer to be just like a classic teen movie is that it sets you up for disappointment. No summer can be that great and that exciting for the full three months, and you wouldn’t want it to be, you'd be exhausted if it was. Why is it so popular then? Why is the teen summer movie such an enduring trope? I suppose it’s because we know we’re never going to have the ideal romanticised summer. Even if they give us high expectations we watch these movies to see a glimmer of our ideals realised. We watch The Perks of Being A Wallflower to feel allied while we’re stuck in high school and to celebrate that is does end once we’re finished, we watch The To Do List to learn and laugh along with Brandy as she prepares herself for college. We watch Dazed and Confused to attend a crazy all night outdoor party without having to leave the comfort of our bed, we watch The Lifeguard to remind ourselves that being a teenager can’t last forever; that summer ends. This is what movies are for, and during this time in our life we often need these kinds of movies. To motivate us, to inspire us, as cheesy as it sounds sometimes we need the high expectations as a goal to work towards. We need the motivation so we don’t completely waste our summers while we have them, while we’re young.      

 

BETH LEE

Beth really loves her dogs.