Strong acting saves Summertree from itself. Adapted from a play by Ron Cowen and directed by English actor/singer/songwriter Anthony Newley, this trés-’70s drama tackles the Generation Gap, race relations, and the Vietnam-era draft. Unsurprisingly, it’s the sort of clumsy patchwork that emerges whenever filmmakers try to be all things to all people. However, newcomer Michael Douglas and veteran Jack Warden, together with an engaging Brenda Vaccaro, breathe life into the story’s contrived rhythms. How contrived? At various times, the movie is amusing, provocative, romantic, and thoughtful—neither Cowan nor Newley seem comfortable committing to a single tonality. Therefore, perhaps it’s best to think of Summertree as a series of variations on a theme instead of a proper narrative; it’s as if the movie tracks the adventures of a confused young man during a dangerous time in his life, and then inadvertently tells a complete story along the way.
The young man in question is Jerry (Douglas), a 20-year-old college student who wants to drop out of school and concentrate on playing music. This doesn’t sit well with his conservative father, Herb (Jack Warden). Yet Summetree doesn’t take the usual path of portraying Herb as a Greatest Generation ideologue who can’t stomach the counterculture antics of his longhair offspring. Rather, the filmmakers portray Herb as a humane individual who’s trying hard to understand changes in the world. For instance, he clearly states at one point that his attitude toward Vietnam changed from gung-ho to gun-shy the minute his own son became eligible for the draft. The scenes between Douglas and Warden are the best in the movie, with Douglas coming into his own as a self-confident screen persona and Warden providing an authoritative counterpoint.
That said, the romantic scenes between Douglas and Vacarro have real heat—no surprise, since the actors became involved offscreen after making the movie—as well as edge, owing to an age difference between their characters, among other serious romantic obstacles. And if the weakest element of the picture is an underfed subplot about Jerry spending time as a Big Brother for inner-city kid Marvis, at least Kirk Callaway’s performance as the boy transcends the inherent cliché of an African-American preteen who mimics the behavior of older tough guys.
Beyond its slight virtues as a character piece, Summertree works as a time capsule thanks to tasty ’70s lingo and vividly dramatized ’70s attitudes. (Jerry fits the “I gotta be me” archetype to a T, and Herb calls Jerry on the risks of Polyannish narcissism.) None would ever mistake Summetree for one of the great pictures of its era or its type, especially since the final image is a cheap shot that undercuts much of what came before. Still, in its modest way, the movie says many interesting things about many interesting topics. More importantly, the acting is polished without being superficial, so each of the three main actors lands a handful of genuine emotional hits.