We don’t get a lot of movies about goth kids. In fact, probably far fewer than their total percentage of actual teenagers. That could be because it’s hard to tell such a story with a straight face. Of all the means of self-identification and self-presentation favoured by teenagers, this is the one that is most similar to dressing up like a clown, intentionally or otherwise. It involves a full regimen of makeup, from lipsticks to mascaras to eyeliners to powders, and then there is a fairly recognisable uniform that goes with it, varying in small ways but always dominated by the colour black. As the goth persona is also the least likely of these identities to follow its adopter into adulthood, it’s also the easiest to write off as the juvenile pursuits of a mind in tumult.
That’s not to suggest there is something innately humorous about goth kids. You wouldn’t know it from how they’re treated in mainstream teen comedies, where they’re the overly morose or melodramatic butts of jokes, but a goth identity could also be the gateway to potentially serious things. Early on in the new film My Summer as a Goth, the protagonist, Joey (Natalie Shershow), sees her new neighbour, Victor (Jack Levis), preparing to hang himself through his bedroom window. It turns out it’s just a moment of theatre, designed only for an audience of himself, but you can understand Joey’s concern. After all, Victor’s a guy who powders his face white, dresses all in black, and listens to lugubrious music … “lugubrious” even being a favourite adjective of his.
There’s a good movie to be made about what turns a teenager to goth and whether it should concern his or her parents. My Summer as a Goth is not it. Being goth is portrayed here as both a fashion choice and a lifestyle, but writer-director Tara Johnson-Medinger seems far more comfortable with the surface-level depth of the former. As Joey falls for Victor and immediately allows herself to be made over in his image, we get a lot of how to select the appropriate clothing and apply the appropriate makeup. We get almost nothing about why Victor, and by extension Joey, should want to do these things in the first place.
Unlike Victor (as far as we’re shown), Joey has an actual reason to be lugubrious. She has lost her father within the past year, and her mother, a successful writer of pulpy novels, seems far more interested in her summer book tour than helping her daughter process the related emotions. This is why 16-year-old Joey ends up at the home of her grandparents after school lets out for the year. Without knowing anyone locally, she gravitates toward Victor, a boy with a personality as ostentatious as his looks. He speaks in a grand manner that suggests he’s concealing a terrific joke, and he’s got a cheeky twinkle in his eye at all times. He offers Joey her first joint, and also seems intent on sleeping with her rather quickly – though he puts on the brakes when he learns she’s a virgin.
Before long Joey is meeting Victor’s friends, the more grounded goths Pen (Jenny White) and Cob (Carter Allen), and starting to attend their parties. They’ve even got their own “special spot,” a tomb in a local cemetery, which they deck out with candles and other goth paraphernalia. Her grandparents don’t seem to mind all that much – they don’t bat an eyelash when she dyes her hair black and starts wearing fishnets – but when she stops responding to their texts and coming home at night, they begin to worry. Joey, on the other hand, wonders if the person she sees in the mirror is really her.
My Summer as a Goth is best when it uses the goth lifestyle as a metaphor for Joey’s journey of self-discovery. It certainly does not judge the goth trappings, as we quickly learn that Victor is the bad version of that life choice, not a typical example. It’s clear he sees Joey more as a project and a plaything, and in his pissier moments, he’s all too eager to mock her for failing to reapply her makeup at regular intervals, or worse, for being a poseur. That’s a pretty cruel indictment when he was the one who told her she needed to make over everything about her appearance.
While it’s clear this movie is going to land someplace between supporting and repudiating Joey’s choices, it continues to leave the actual goth lifestyle as an empty signifier. Sorely missing are passages where Victor explains his own interest in goth or his attraction to the related music. Not only would that humanise Victor beyond the caricature we get, but it would also show that Johnson-Medinger is actually engaging with the specific identity choice that is important enough to have made it into her title. As such, the core thrust of the movie might not be significantly different if it were My Summer as a Skateboard Kid or My Summer as a Drama Nerd.
The film’s effectiveness is also limited by the shortcomings of its execution. Everyone involved here, from the actors to the first-time writer-director, is comparatively new to the game. And though they deliver a perfectly credible film overall, there are moments when their collective lack of experience is more evident than others. They probably all share the blame for reaction shots that are not quite right, and moments that don’t really feel believable. It’s not a major concern, but something that steadily gnaws at the overall experience.
That said, it’s a good start. My Summer as a Goth shows promise, and it finds enough true moments to be a worthwhile entry into the always-burgeoning coming-of-age genre. We may learn only superficial things about looking like a vampire in warm weather, and really, this movie is dying for a good comedy scene in which the hot sun makes a hot mess of all this makeup. But it’s always useful to be reminded of what young people go through as they try to find their way.
My Summer as a Goth is available on demand starting today, 11 November.