by Michele Calderon
The Turkish film Geçen Yaz (Last Summer) currently available on Netflix (not to be confused with the series Son Yaz (Last Summer) aired on Turkish TV), is a lovely, intimate film taking place in the coastal town of Bodrum in Southeastern Turkey, over the course of a summer. Directed by Ozan Açiktan it portrays a typical Turkish family spending the summer months as they do every year, at their second home in Bodrum: father Murat, relaxed and mostly silent; mother Handan, a still young woman appearing somewhat overwhelmed with the task of mothering young adult children; and their two teenage offspring, daughter Ebru and younger son Deniz. Summer activities in the development where their house is located are focused on spending time at the large community pool, and the private beach; and in excursions to nearby hills on the rocky coastline during the day, and local bars at night.
The film is a coming of age story centered on the character of 16 year- old Deniz and the growing pains he suffers as he navigates the transition between boyhood and manhood. At the start of this particular summer, Deniz’s friends and the family’s neighbors all remark about the noticeable changes in him. The chubby boy shown in framed photos in the family’s living room has turned into a tall adolescent with dark good looks, a beautiful smile and an athletic, slim physique. As Ebru’s girlfriends ask about this transformation in her brother, Ebru blithely answers: “don’t ask, he has taken up swimming”.
These growing pains are symbolized in Deniz by physical representations: the painful sunburn he develops after falling asleep on the beach; and the nasty gash he incurs under his foot, climbing on sharp rocks after jumping from a high cliff into the sea. That daredevil act Deniz undertakes to show off in front of his older sister and her friends, particularly Asli — an 18 year-old free spirit Deniz has a major crush on.
Both injuries gradually fade throughout the course of the summer as Deniz learns to handle relationships with the opposite sex. His longing for Asli is clear, as Deniz takes every opportunity to spend time with her, which Asli encourages, pretexting boredom with her predictable, boy-crazy girlfriends. At night Deniz tags along with Asli and the rest of the older gang as they drink, smoke and dance at various local bars.
He eventually works up the courage to ask her out one evening, only to be crushed when Asli appears accompanied by Burak, an older young man with a “live with abandon” philosophy who has taken an interest in her. Asli and Burak both play the flirting game with each other, with Deniz as an unwilling, but fascinated audience. The three embark on a road trip at night while drinking, which ends with Burak and Asli’s moving to the next step in their relationship, an event that completes the utter crushing of Deniz’s hopes. But as the summer ends, Burak has cheated on Asli and Deniz finally gets his chance to “kiss the girl”.
Geçen Yaz is sensitively directed by Ozan Açiktan and beautifully shot by cinematographer Özgur Basaran whose premature passing is acknowledged in the movie’s first images with an “in loving memory” dedication.
Both have created a languid, sensual mood fully evocative of summer on Turkey’s beautiful Aegean Coast, and have fully caught the lazy rhythm of long days spent at the beach or by the pool, and sweaty nights dancing in local nightclubs.
The camera follows Deniz’s eyes as they discretely but insistently explore Asli’s bikini- clad body; his fascination with her gorging on ripe figs plucked from a tree as the two explore the hills nearby; and with her sexy dance moves at the club.
The mood of the movie very much reminded me of Luca Guadagnino’s 2017 film Call me by your Name, also a coming of age movie focusing on a teenage boy’s fascination with an older love interest. Although Elio (the character played by Timothée Chalamet in that film) and his family were shown to belong to a higher social class than Deniz’s apparently middle class family, and the object of his affection is not a girl two years older but a much older man, the atmosphere of the film felt quite similar; in Açiktan’s skillful directing you begin not just to watch, but to experience the story of Geçen Yaz through the eyes and feelings of the lead protagonist, which to me was the highlight of this movie.
The night time road trip of Burak, Asli and Deniz was also reminiscent of a possible influence on Ozan Açiktan by another coming of age movie: the 2001 film Y Tu Mama También by writer/director Alfonso Cuarón. Although less overtly sexual and much more understated — a refreshing aspect of Turkish moviemaking to me — Açiktan’s film contains references to the fragility of life (Burak’s parents died in a car crash and he believes in the tenet “ live every day as if it were your last”) that are very similar to a key theme in the Cuarón classic.
The actors in lead roles are quite good: young Fatih Sahin’s portrayal of Deniz’s shyness along with his yearning desire for Asli, his attempts at appearing cool around her and her friends (his one word answer when asked how he is doing is “standard”); his repressed jealousy of Burak that bursts out in full fighting anger at the end. Through his performance, we fully experience Deniz’s growing pains along with the jumble of contradictory emotions typical of his age. His desire for independence and a future where he will not always “be exhausted like my father”, while the pull of childhood remains real, are very well depicted in Deniz’s impulse to hug his mother, when she bursts out in anger chastising him for staying out all night.
Ece Çesmioglu with her blond curls, slender body and bohemian style, also gave a very credible performance as Asli. Her portrayal of Asli’s carefree behavior around Deniz, whom she treats as a younger brother while overtly flirting with him, is nuanced. She shows us well how Asli thrives on the simultaneous interest of two young men; her free spirit attitude and wanting to be different from other girls; and her suppressed, but growing feeling for Deniz as she realizes that unlike Burak, the younger boy really cares for her.
Supporting actors are also well cast, in particular Deniz and Ebru’s father Murat, whose character we finally discover in a key scene towards the movie’s end, while he gives a bittersweet speech to his children about what it means to grow up.
Though the movie ends a bit abruptly, it does so on a hopeful note with a repeat of the cliff jumping scene by the two key protagonists.
Overall, I found Geçen Yaz a film well worth watching, with a lovely atmospheric quality that stayed with me after the credits rolled down at the end. A pleasant tale, about the summer of 1997 in Bodrum and the joys and pains of adolescence, that stands out as a refreshing pause in a sea of summer rom-coms.
Article copyright (c) North America TEN & Michele Calderon
Born and raised in Paris, Michele Calderon was educated in France and the United States, receiving graduate degrees in law and political science/international relations. She lived for over three decades in Washington D.C. while raising a son and pursuing a career in business development and international development consulting.
She now resides with her husband on the Eastern Shore of Maryland near the Chesapeake Bay. In addition to writing, her passions include reading, film watching and reviewing, spending time in nature and traveling.
She has been a passionate fan of Turkish drama for the last two years, since discovering the landmark series Kurt Seyit ve Şura starring Kivanç Tatlituğ, on Netflix. Her interest in Turkish entertainment and culture has motivated her to begin learning the Turkish language, through an intensive class offered by the Yunus Emre Turkish Cultural Institute in Washington DC. She hopes to travel to Turkey in 2022.
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