As traditional movie theaters are being overrun with superheroes, Netflix has decided to make itself the home of the next generation of romantic comedies. It began last year with the summer of rom-coms, where films geared toward the younger crowd like Set It Up and To All the Boys I've Loved Before established Netflix as the destination for movies you can drink a glass of wine with while you warm your heart. As the streaming giant heads into its second summer of rom-coms, it's becoming apparent that it's struggling when it comes to teen romance and coming-of-age stories.
Case in point: The Perfect Date failed to capitalize on dream boy Noah Centineo's charm in any meaningful way, and now The Last Summer doesn't pack the same punch of coming-of-age tales that broke the mold of the genre. Like The Perfect Date, Last Summer has all the ingredients to be a classic. The movie's title refers to the last summer before a group of Chicago teens heads off to college -- the last chance to say goodbye to their younger selves and get prepared for the adult world. Riverdale's KJ Apa as aspiring music student Griffin and Good Trouble star Maia Mitchell as the reserved filmmaker Phoebe try to balance their artistic ambitions with a summer love, family drama, and parental pressure to choose the right school and major. The supporting cast features Teen Wolf's Tyler Posey as a rookie Chicago Cubs player, Halston Sage (The Orville), Jacob Latimore (The Chi), and Wolfgang Novogratz (Sierra Burgess Is a Loser) -- all of whom are the freakish type of beautiful that never went to your high school but who you are happy to fantasize about in that kind of context.
So, how does a movie about pretty people coming of age go wrong? The Last Summer is an ensemble rom-com, but outside of Erin (Sage), her ex Alex (Latimore), and Erin's BFF Audrey (Sosie Bacon), the relationship between the separate storylines feels tangential at best. Every teen in the film lives in Chicago and presumably went to the same high school (minus Apa, whose character was shipped to boarding school his freshman year), but there's no singular event to bring them together or unite them in a cause, which forces you to question why are these stories important? Why am I supposed to care about these people?
About halfway through watching The Last Summer, after my third-eye roll, I started to wonder if maybe I'm just getting too old for these types of films. I think it's less that I've lost touched with Gen-Z culture and more that my coming-of-age years were built on teen classics like Can't Hardly Wait, which has been the standard for ensemble teen rom-coms for 20 years. I kept wanting The Last Summer to give me the emotional surge of Can't Hardly Wait's epic final high school party with hearts on the line and friendships changed forever, but it never really made it there. Part of that is because of the flimsy connective tissue between the characters, but the rest is because there's no drive for these characters to learn something and grow.
Erin kicks off the movie breaking up with her boyfriend believing it's better to rip off the band-aid early rather than waiting for a more painful breakup when they leave for separate schools at the end of the summer. The break-up lands her in the arms of Ricky Santos (Posey), a baseball player with a dreamy soft Texas accent who seems like the perfect boyfriend, until he commits a relationship-ending faux pas that doesn't jive with anything we learned about his character up until that point. He breaks her heart to put her back where the writers wanted her to be, but it doesn't make sense when put side-by-side with anything he said or did before that moment.
Simultaneously, Reece (Mario Revolori) and Chad (Jacob McCarthy) are nerds excluded from the social gatherings of the other main characters. They find their summer amusement by dressing up in suits to get drinks at a local bar where their upgraded wardrobe gets them confused for stock brokers. It's an amusing trick when they're using it to get beers, but takes a creepy turn when they begin dating women who believe they are in their mid-twenties. When they inevitably get caught and come clean, it's laughed off as an adorable joke rather than an egregious lie that led to women sleeping with them under completely false pretenses. It's 2019 and I do not have the energy to break down every way that is problematic.
The alleged redemption of sports stud Foster (Novogratz), who spends most of the film trying to lie and manipulate into the pants of every female classmate he's put on his list of girls he wants to bang before the end of summer, falls into similar unearned territory. These dudes are behaving in ridiculously cringe-y ways, but are given a pass for honest confessions that come way too late and don't actually include an apology. It's the same as giving someone a pass for a racist joke just because they said "JK!" afterwards.
The heart of The Last Summer is Griffin and Phoebe's storyline and it comes closest to having the heart of the teen romances of yesteryear. There's an actual arc to their relationship, with hurdles, setbacks, and adorable montages. When their inevitable big fight comes up, the movie pushes you to take a side in their moral dilemma, but their storyline is surrounded by so much other questionable plotting that it's difficult to stay engaged with their drama. Their resolution is enjoyable, but it wasn't enough to justify the rest of the movie.
This is the second teen rom-com from Netflix that has missed the mark when it comes to telling compelling teen stories. It's ironic because Netflix has hit it out of the park when it comes to several of their teen-centric TV shows, from Sex Education to On My Block and the gone-too-soon Everything Sucks!. And the streaming giant understands successful rom-coms. The aforementioned Set It Up is a solid 21st century take on the genre. While last month's Someone Great had some logistical errors when it came to the reality of music journalism careers, it was still an emotional and heartwarming story of growing up, moving on, and female friendships.
There seems to be something about trying to capture today's teenagers on films that misses the mark. It's not that the current generation is obsessed with Instagram and social media, because I'd counter anyone who says that with the fact that today's teens are some of the most socially and politically engaged group of young people we've seen in generations. They have things to say and stories to tell, but that isn't being reflected in films that show them as shallow and idealistic to the point of absurdity. When To All the Boys premiered last summer, it seemed to set the bar for the modern teen rom-com, but Netflix's subsequent efforts to tell current romantic high school stories, including The Last Summer, have made that film feel less like a standard and more like an anomaly.
The Last Summer premieres Friday, May 3 on Netflix.