‘Griffin in Summer’ Review: Imagine If the Delightful Nerds of ‘Theater Camp’ Had to Go at It Alone SuperNayr

Griffin Nafly (Everett Blunk) is not like other 14-year-olds. Consider his contribution to his school’s end-of-the-year talent show: a snippet of his latest play in which he reads for both lead roles, a disaffected stockbroker and his drunk wife, as they scream and carry on about everything from infidelity to abortions. While everyone else is happy with pop song duets, it’s Griffin — too old for his years, too young to really break free — who wants to bring some actual art to the suburban stage.

And while that might all be OK, even kinda fun, the real problem isn’t just that Griffin isn’t like most other 14-year-olds, it’s that he’s not even really like his closest friends either. While his childhood pals, including “Are You There, God? It’s Me Margaret” breakout Abbie Ryder Fortson as his long-suffering second-in-command Kara, are moving into classic young adulthood — finding handsy boyfriends, getting drunk off one can of hard seltzer, leaning into their scientific interests — Griffin has barely evolved since last summer. Back then, Griffin and co. spent their days readying yet another one of his plays for the stage. This year? He might be going at it alone.

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It’s hard to blame the kiddos for balking at spending their summer working on an outing that Griffin giddily terms “‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ meets ‘American Beauty.’” Nicholas Colia’s feature directorial debut, “Griffin in Summer,” spins off that sort of cheeky humor into what could easily be described as a tween take on “Theater Camp” or, better yet, a version of “Theater Camp” in which the lovable theater geeks at its heart didn’t even have each other to lean on when times got tough.

Griffin’s mannered, very nearly mean approach to life — he’s the kind of kid who calls his mother, played by the always-delightful Melanie Lynskey, by her first name — is starting to wear thin (Blunk, however, remains a charming breakout star throughout). And while Colia initially leans into the zaniness of Griffin’s personality and predilections, his script does slowly wind to deeper, more emotional discoveries. Like, for instance, what exactly does Griffin know about the ins and outs of adult relationships? While the tonal swings that accompany Colia’s story don’t always flow with ease and a certain amount of whiplash takes hold in the second act, many of the revelations he unearths make those issues worth it.

‘Griffin in Summer’

Such is the case with Colia’s delicate handling of the unexpected relationship that takes shape as Griffin grapples with the potentially bleak summer ahead. Enter: Brad. Played by rising star Owen Teague, the one-time performance artist (he was into “happenings,” and oh, what a treat when we get to see them on a grainy YouTube video) is now a volatile handyman, doomed to spend his own summer helping Griffin’s mom around the house and attempting to cobble money to get back to Bushwick. Initially, Griffin loathes him. And then, well, Brad unlocks some other feelings in him.

It’s the kind of storyline that is ripe for missteps, and while there are still moments when audiences might wonder, “Wait, is this funny or is it scary?,” Colia mostly sticks what he’s attempting. While Brad’s presence stirs new emotions in Griffin — including abject terror upon the introduction of Brad’s girlfriend, played by a wonderfully unhinged Kathryn Newton — he also helps push the young playwright into fresh creative spaces. Some of Brad’s influence is purposely silly (at one point, the male lead of Griffin’s evolving play announces he was a “stock market major” who lives in Bushwick), and the temporary casting of Brad in the actual play is genuinely hilarious.

Colia attempts to tie up his comedic sensibilities and his more emotional tendencies in a rangy third act. The beats he needs to hit and the journey he needs to take Griffin on are expected, at least to end in a place befitting the warm-hearted nature of the film, but Colia still finds some surprises along the way. As a showcase for his stellar casting abilities and knack for heartwarming storytelling, “Griffin in Summer” is a very fine feature directorial debut. Even better, it might make nerds like Griffin realize something that can often take too long to learn: they’re really not alone.

Grade: B

“Griffin in Summer” premiered at the 2024 Tribeca Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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