Monday, March 22, 2021

SXSW Review: "Best Summer Ever," the first film with a fully integrated cast and crew of people with and without disabilities

From Flixist

Part Grease, part High School Musical, Best Summer Ever is a musical taking on the high school genre with a fully-integrated cast of people with and without disabilities. The conversation around inclusion, disability, and representation in Hollywood needs to be changed — starting with creating inclusive films. From that standpoint, it’s a pioneering production and a really wild ride.

Best Summer Ever
Director: Michael Parks Randa and Lauren Smitelli
Release date: March 18, 2021 (SXSW)
Rating: Not yet rated

Best Summer Ever is a lot of fun, full of actors and young people who are all so talented. I’m glad that the storyline hasn’t been specifically diluted for people with disabilities: the writers’ goal is to treat the film like a traditional high school story where everyone is equal and the storyline isn’t contrived specifically around disabilities. It’s presented with closed captions for accessibility and the film is wholly inclusive in its cast and crew.

The plot’s driven by the usual hallmarks of the genre: Anthony (Ricky Wilson Jr.) is a popular quarterback hiding the fact that he spent the summer at dance camp, and he meets Sage (Shannon DeVido), a girl who is always on the move with her family. The highest-stakes part of the film is that Tony might get exposed as a dancer to his high school, when the entire school seems to count on him to win this year’s football season, breaking a 25-year losing streak for the team.

There’s a really bizarre storyline in which Sage’s two mothers grow cannabis for medicinal use, so they’re always on the move, traveling around the country seeking out the next growing season. It has a lot to do with their very anti-establishment philosophy and it seems to ring true throughout the entire film, affecting each of the characters. 

True to the genre, it can feel a bit cliched at times, but it’s all part of the fun. The rival cheerleader Beth (Madeline Rhodes) is brilliantly over-zealous, stringing along with a group of followers who do her bidding. A plot unfolds beneath the subplot of the teen romance, as Beth sets out to sabotage Sage’s new life. She’s no match, though, for the pair of savvy teens and their plan to confound everyone’s expectations of them.

If the plot felt contrived at times, I couldn’t have predicted the madness of the ending. It took a turn I didn’t expect and gave villains their comeuppance, meting out justice with plenty of slapstick comedy. A special mention has to go to Emily Kranking who plays Nancy, Sage’s first friend in her new town, and the actor responsible for some of the best comedic delivery of the film.

In the end, Tony reconciles two of his passions – football and dance – with a little help from Sage. And the finale is an explosive, show-stopping number that rounds everything up just as you’d hope. There’s a bonus end-credit sequence showing the cast and crew in rehearsals, and not only is it representative, it’s clear they’re having a blast. Best Summer Ever is a fun, heartwarming, and inclusive film for this year’s festival, the likes of which we need to see more of in Hollywood. 

Monday, March 8, 2021

The New York Times, National Center on Disability and Journalism partner to enhance coverage of disability issues

 NCDJ logo and New York Times logo together on black and grey grid.

By Kasey Brammell, NCDJ

The National Center on Disability and Journalism at Arizona State University is partnering with The New York Times to create a new fellowship program to enhance coverage of disability issues and people with disabilities.

The program, to launch later this year, will place an early-career journalist in The Times newsroom each year for the next two years to develop expertise and report on a range of disability issues. It is set to be funded by philanthropy.

The fellow will be part of a larger fellowship cohort at The Times and will receive mentoring from both a Times’ staff member with expertise in covering disabilities and the NCDJ, which provides support and advice to journalists around the world who cover such issues. The NCDJ also will provide training to the Times’ newsroom.

Nearly one in five people in the United States lives with a disability, but these issues are undercovered, said Ted Kim, director of Early Career Journalism Strategy and Recruiting for The New York Times. “Few avenues exist to develop journalistic expertise on disability issues because such beats do not exist at most news outlets,” he said. “The lack of coverage, in turn, results in a lack of awareness about issues that affect a large portion of the country.”

Kristin Gilger, interim dean of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at ASU and director of the NCDJ, echoed the need for more and better coverage of disability issues and people with disabilities. “This fellowship program is an important step in the right direction at one of the nation’s top media institutions,” she said.

The application is now open for the first fellow, who will join The Times in June. Preference will be given to promising early-career journalists who also have experience living with a disability or who have developed a deep understanding of disability through the experiences of a family member or loved one. The deadline to submit an application is 5 p.m., New York Time, on March 31, 2021. Applicants are advised to submit well before the deadline.

The fellows will be part of The New York Times Fellowship program , a talent pipeline initiative started in 2019 to seed and diversify the next generation of journalists in local newsrooms across America. It trains journalists in reporting, audio, visual and other disciplines.

The National Center on Disability and Journalism is a service of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at ASU. For the past 12 years at Cronkite, the center has provided support and training for journalists and other communications professionals with the goal of improving media coverage of disability issues and people with disabilities.