Summer Vacation As Explained By The Movies

Over the history of film, people have found excitement in movies that take them places. Often we enter the theater and go on epic voyages, fall in love, conquer evil and live the lives we only dream of. The appeal of film is its ability to expose audiences to stories untold, exploring the worlds of creative fantasy. The real accomplishment of film, however, is it’s ability to keep us right at home. The movies most special to us are the ones that offer some sort of connection and nostalgia; an experience that we can laugh or cry to in understanding.

Throughout my life, I’ve looked to film to the answer questions that people could not. Movies, no matter how far off from the truth, gave me glimpses of what prom night would be like or how my first time would go. In moments of pain, I was able to watch movies that premised death, illness and heartbreak to ground my emotion in human experience. Each character or story we fall for shows a glimmer of our reflection. That’s why even the most simple scenes in film can be so powerful. Think the dinner table  scene in August: Osage County. Or Forrest’s monologue to Jenny’s headstone at the end of Forrest Gump. Film can highlight the commonplace as an adventure, in which having a busy Monday, going on a date or a night out can turn into the greatest story ever told. And to this effect, no cinematic experience is as wide open as the summer vacation.

Leaving school in the spring, I said goodbye to my friends and wished them well over the summer. As we relocated back to our respective homes across the country, we settled back into routines of work or home life. Being home for the summer in college is met with similar challenges for everyone– distance between friends and significant others, reuniting with parents and facing sheer boredom. The last of that list is a summer obstacle I’ve faced all my life. So many of my friends study abroad and vacation in paradise while I’m at home eating Doritos.

Even though finances are a major prospect of having an eventful summer, I told myself this would be the summer of “yes”. I challenged myself to accept and experience more. The catch, of course, would be my lack of control over what I would have to accept. By sitting at home doing nothing, I didn’t have anything to lose. But that wasn’t going to be good enough. I wanted legitimate answers to the inevitable “How was your summer?” come fall semester. I finally wanted to earn my summer movie moment.

As much promise as that sentence leads with, my second week home from school, my Gramma died. Her health had been failing since she moved to assisted living and, since I vowed to say “yes” more often, I agreed to fly out to Nebraska with my dad to see her one last good time. To make a long story short, we landed around 10 am and she passed around 3 in the afternoon. We stayed for the anticipated three days at my uncle’s house, flew back home for three, then came back for another two for Gramma’s funeral. It was exhausting and I was drained, but not particularly overwhelmed with grief.

If you’ve ever seen the 2005 dramedy Elizabethtown, my family interactions mirrored those of the film, where Orlando Bloom’s character returns to his hometown for his father’s funeral, interacting with estranged family members. Bloom’s character is an aggravated twenty-something, who struggles with his father’s death as much as he struggles with his sense of self. A reoccurring bit in the film is Bloom’s unusual response to his family’s greetings. Second and third cousins approach his character by saying “I’m so sorry about your father” and all he can conjure up is “…my condolences”.

I love how relevant and awkward this character response is. I only see my dad’s side of the family twice a year at maximum– and Gramma’s funeral was a refresher on just how distant I am from most of my relatives. Though I was met with familial warmth, maneuvering your way through family interaction as a young adult will forever be challenging. When I was approached with “I’m sorry about your Grandmother”, I kept responding with an all-too-perky “it’s okay!”. I shuddered off my poor social graces, and attempted to brief strangers on my life– a two-to-three sentence explanation of where I’m headed; skillfully tip toeing around the fact that I secretly don’t have much going on.

Be that first month of summer not what I asked for, I was able to takeaway plenty from Gramma’s death. After sorting through piles upon piles of her photo albums, all perfectly curated records of family get-togethers throughout time, my sense of family became emboldened like never before. There was a house full of people, whose day-to-day lives I know virtually nothing of, all genuinely happy to see me. I hugged my family members goodbye and left Nebraska feeling deeply rooted and deeply loved. You could’ve plopped me into any family-themed coming of age film and I wouldn’t have known the difference.

June continued with similar introspectiveness. Again, on trend with new experiences, I decided early into spring semester to take a summer credit and stay by myself on campus for a month. And I do mean by myself. June was the month I learned how to be alone. I took myself to lunch, sat in cafés for hours, shopped at the mall, found sunny spots in the city and simply sat. There were afternoons where I would drive my new car until the gas light came on just because I could. I would sing at the top of my lungs or cry in empty (or full) parking lots. If any of that was pathetic, I didn’t care. The whole experience felt like a slow-burning indie film. June was the month I learned to listened to myself.

Excitement (unexpectedly) ensued in July. My dad wanted to retrieve my Grandpa’s beer fridge from his childhood home. So, naturally, I agreed to ride for 15 hours back out to Nebraska to carry out this task and ride 15 hours back. It was an arrangement straight out of National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983). It would be my first road trip– and I would only need this one to turn me into a lover of the American tradition.

We cheered “Holiday ro-oo-oo-oad” merging onto new interstates, keeping our eyes peeled for WORLD’S BIGGEST BALL OF STRING! signs. We spent a fun afternoon in St. Louis, and I was able to put my feet in seven new states by the time we arrived back home. But I got the most enjoyment out of sitting back and looking out over the many corn fields and foothills, picturing other blonde 20-something girls in random homes, lying in their beds at night with stars in their eyes like I so often do. The whole experience was as existential as What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993), as mismatched and random as Little Miss Sunshine (2006), and just about as giddy as Britney Spears on her journey in Crossroads (2002).

While all of this was good and well, none of it particularly screamed summer. I craved something a little sunnier. At the end of the month, I accompanied my life-long best friend to go see her grandmother in Florida.

“She’s really old, we won’t be going out and doing much,” she warned, almost apologetic.

As if that would be a problem. We spent four days in her grandmother’s condo that was nestled a blissful 20 feet from the Gulf. I haven’t had an honest-to-God vacation in a few years, and this was the first time I traveled out of the state with only the accompaniment of a friend. We did nothing but cook ourselves out on the white sand. Talk about Endless Summer (1966). Though we never waded more than knee-deep, I was completely in the mindset of Blue Crush (2002). In the evenings, we put wine in to-go cups and walked on the beach for what felt like hours on end.

It occurred to me how different our lives had become since we transitioned from high school; that our reliable school friend group returned home less and less in the years that followed. But each night after dinner, we watched the sun dip under the horizon and talked about everything. Think Stand By Me (1986) or Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (2005) just not nearly as melancholy. Nostalgic, sure, but we joked and laughed and  sank our toes in the shore and relaxed. It was the first time in a long time that I didn’t have a damn thing on my mind. I finally got my summer bestie movie moment– if only Aquamarine had showed up (2006).

Reassessing my summer break, it didn’t reach Wet Hot American Summer (2001) proportions nor was it nearly as epic as the East High Wildcats’ working at Sharpay’s country club in the classic High School Musical 2 (2007). However, I only explained the truly premiere parts of my summer as the ones that emulated a popcorn feeling– moments that were cinematic in nature. While that was the theme of my rambling, my summer was made up of picturesque little moments, too.

I took a day trip to a state park on Memorial day, showed a college friend around my hometown, spent many afternoons by the pool and took over dinner for my family a few nights a week. I went to the Washington D.C. area to visit my boyfriend the week of his birthday and, though I’d like to say we galavanted through the capital like movie stars, we spent quality time not doing much of anything at all.

Summer is marketed as a carefree time for young people, where the promise of possibility lends itself to plots of romance and adventure on screen. It’s terribly easy to wish the summers in movies were your realities, full of mysticism and exhilaration. But  your life experiences cannot be capped by the season, which is why a lot of my summer reminded me of a plethora of films. Films that I somehow connect with and am able to project their energy. That’s the power of movies; their capacity to tint your view of life.

I have exactly two weeks left of summer vacation, and while I am completely ready to return to school, I intend to make the most of the time I have left. Who knows, I could end up at a Labor Day blow-out party the likes of Magic Mike XXL (2015) or American Pie 2 (2001), or find a Jaws sized beast in our local river (1975). Perhaps I’ll be gutted in the woods on an unassuming camping trip to the tune of any summer slasher film you can think of. I’m not sure, but I have an inkling I’ll be doing what I do best for the next two weeks:

watching a lot of movies.