The opening musical number in “Best Summer Ever” ends with a kiss between protagonists Sage (Shannon DeVido) and Tony (Rickey Wilson Jr.), who fall in love at a sleepaway dance camp in Vermont. Executive producer Will Halby said he shared a realization with his crew while filming this scene.
“I turned to our directors and said, ‘I don’t think that this is something that has ever been put on film before,’” Halby said.
What’s unprecedented here is that Sage is in a wheelchair and is played by an actress who herself is in a wheelchair. In fact, it’s the first musical to star people with disabilities and the first SAG-registered movie in which more than half the cast and crew are disabled.
To help with the musical, which features eight original songs, Halby brought on celebrity friends Maggie Gyllenhaal, Peter Sarsgaard, Jamie Lee Curtis, Ted Danson, Amy Brenneman and Mary Steenburgen as executive producers on the project.
In addition, the film doesn’t present their disabilities as a problem but simply a fact of life. It’s filled with all the tropes of a teen drama seen in a “Grease” or “High School Musical.” Halfway through a scene, many of the characters will jump on a table to start singing and dancing in synchrony. With that suspension of disbelief, Halby’s crew was able to bring Zeno Mountain Farm‘s world into the fold.
In the film, “Some of the high school kids are like in their 30s and you’ve never seen a team of this many people with Down syndrome but that’s totally fine in the context of the film,” Halby said. “We beg the question, ‘why is it not more normal, not just on film, but in the world, in general, to see this level of integration in our day to day lives?’”
Halby is the co-founder of Zeno, a nonprofit based in Vermont that creates opportunities for people with and without disabilities. While the Zeno family has been creating short films for over 12 years, “Best Summer Ever” marks their first feature-length film, which was selected for SXSW 2020 prior to the pandemic. The inclusive film will open at the 13th annual ReelAbilities drive-in film festival on April 29. Located in Queens, N.Y., it is the largest festival in the country that celebrates the artistic expressions of people with disabilities.
After Sage and Tony unexpectedly end up at the same high school, the film follows Sage reevaluating her relationship with Tony as he struggles with the pressure of leading his football team to victory on homecoming night and becoming the dancer he’s always wanted to be.
Producer Andrew Pilkington said he was glad the songs were catchy as he had to listen repeatedly during production. Born with cerebral palsy, Pilkington strives to run his own TV set where disabled and non-disabled crew members can share a happy and healthy environment.
“I live my life as a normal person,” Pilkington said. “Just because you have a disabled character doesn’t mean the show has to be about their disability.”
DeVido, who’s made recurring appearances on series like “Difficult People” and “Insatiable,” shares a similar ambition to Pilkington. She hopes to one day work on a Marvel project or collaborate with her hero, “Parks and Recreation” showrunner Michael Schur. While she has been acting since her community theater days in junior high, DeVido said she initially never considered acting as a profession.
“I didn’t really see myself represented on TV or in film so it was never really something I thought I could do for a living,” DeVido said. “As I got older, I realized that I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.”
Since the producers create an inclusive environment that is welcoming and supportive, DeVido said they can extract better work from their crew.
“You get something that has heart and joy, and that’s something that I think the world needs,” DeVido said. “We all deserve a seat at the table.”
While Halby pointed to some Hollywood films that feature people with disabilities, he said these “sappy” films tend to emphasize the characters without disabilities and their interactions with disabled characters.
Halby said there’s “a very specific formula that writers in Hollywood have been following” when it comes to disability. Films like “My Left Foot” or “Rain Man” have historically cast non-disabled actors to play these roles, often emphasizing the story arcs of other characters and how they interact with a disabled character. In contrast, Halby wanted to flip the script on that trope with “Best Summer Ever.”
“If Hollywood makes sappy movies about disabilities that star people without disabilities pretending to have a disability, we wanted to make a movie that stars people with disabilities that isn’t sappy and isn’t about disability,” Halby said.
According to the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, a think tank at the University of Southern California that examines inequality in the entertainment industry, 2.3% of speaking characters across the top 100 movies in 2019 were depicted with a disability. Michael Parks Randa, who served as a co-director on the film alongside Lauren Smitelli, said he hopes this film can serve as a blueprint for filmmakers to continue creating inclusive films, both in front and behind the camera.
“This film being released definitively shuts down that conversation that this type of thing can’t be done,” Randa said. “There are no excuses anymore.”
The two directors said the trials and errors of creating this film and helping to initiate change was an endeavor that was worthwhile.
“When you’re trying to do anything new in Hollywood, there’s always a lot of pushback,” Smitelli said. “We’re just really proud to have an example of how this worked and the people that pulled it off.”’
In addition to DeVido and Wilson Jr., who played the titular couple, the cast includes MuMu, Jacob Waltuck, Emily Kranking, Bradford Hayes, Eileen Grubba, Holly Palmer, Ajani A.J. Murray and Lawrence Carter-Long. Terra Mackintosh, Leah Romond, Jake Sharpless, and Katie White served as producers alongside Pilkington.