Saturday, December 23, 2017

Harrad Summer (1974)

          Adapted from a provocative novel, The Harrad Experiment (1973) depicted a fictional college where two professors paired random coeds into romantic couples with a goal of helping young people shake off societal hangups about sex. Despite dippy scripting, the movie did well enough to prompt a sequel, and the folks behind the follow-up came up with a sensible premise: After a year of free love on campus, what happens when the kids participating in the Harrad Experiment go home to their families over the summer? Don Johnson and Bruno Kirby, the male leads of the first film, declined to appear in the sequel and their roles were recast, but Victoria Thompson and Laurie Walters, the female leads, returned to play their original characters.
          Written in a surprisingly intelligent style by Mort Thaw and Steve Zacharias, Harrad Summer uses an episodic structure—the kids are instructed to keep journals, so the film is divided into four “journal entries,” each one ostensibly told from the perspective of one character. This device doesn’t entirely work, but it was a good try. Similarly, the sociocultural stance of the picture makes sense. By depicting the families of the four students, the filmmakers get to explore four different attitudes toward human sexuality. One boy’s parents are simple immigrants who can’t wrap their heads around free love, and one girl’s father is a rich prick driven mad by the notion that some young stud has sullied his daughter. The picture also gets heavy into gender issues, with the guys from the Harrad Experiment having affairs while their female counterparts gravitate toward monogamy.
          For those concerned with the movies plot, Stanley (Robert Reiser, in for Johnson) swings with a hometown girlfriend after feeling restrained by fidelity on campus; Henry (Doran, in for Kirby) feels queasy after fooling around and also clashes with his businessman father (Bill Dana); sexy Beth (Thompson) reconnects with a photographer for whom she used to model; and plain Sheila (Walters) finds herself torn between her affection for Stanley and her need for self-respect. The most amusing and/or poignant scenes involve Henry, hapless with women and nervous around adults. Also worth mentioning are comedy bits involving Dana, as Henry’s overbearing father, because even with a bit too much melodramatic eye-rolling, Dana contributes the film’s most skilled performance. Harrad Summer also has a more lively spectrum of locations than the first film, venturing into a a crowded factory, a noisy county fair, a dingy motel, a stately mansion, and other places. Naturally, the subject matter allows the filmmakers to include a fair amount of nudity, as in an amusing scene of square adults disrobing by a pool while trying to emulate their kids' uninhibited grooviness.
          Quite a bit of what happens in Harrad Summer is sensitive and thoughtful, and the cast mostly delivers proficient work. (Doran is the standout among the kids.) Had director Steven Hilliard Stern and his collaborators kept things brisk and tight, Harrad Summer might have exceeded its mediocre predecessor in quality. Alas, the sequel drags on and on, sprawling over a needlessly long-winded 103 minutes. (Fortunately, the filmmakers regroup for a satisfying final stretch.) In its best moments, Harrad Summer nearly justifies its existence—but whenever the movie stumbles, it grinds pointlessly through been-there/done-that plot machinations.

Harrad Summer: FUNKY

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