USA TODAY: ‘Best Summer Ever’ is a feel-good musical and a big win for disability inclusion

By David Oliver

Imagine a world where people with disabilities didn’t have to talk about their disabilities. A world where they’re just people.

That’s the big takeaway from “Best Summer Ever,” (available now on DVD and on-demand) a musical rom-com in the same vein as “Grease,” “High School Musical” and “Footloose” that features a mixed cast of people with and without disabilities.

The feel-good film stars Shannon DeVido (“Difficult People,” “Insatiable”) and Rickey Wilson, Jr. as its romantic leads, Sage and Tony. The pair meet at a summer dance camp before going their separate ways, only to end up at the same high school where their worlds collide in a chaotic but ultimately cathartic fashion. And of course, songs help tell the story.

“Best Summer Ever” was made in connection with a real camp, Zeno Mountain Farm in Vermont, which hosts annual retreats for people with disabilities as well as other marginalized groups. Film co-director, co-writer and executive producer Michael Parks Randa, along with fellow director and writer Lauren Smitelli, has close ties to Zeno. Parks Randa says they’d been making movies for the past decade and the production value only got better.

They eventually decided to make a musical – with backing from executive producers Maggie Gyllenhaal, Peter Sarsgaard, Amy Brenneman, Jamie Lee Curtis, Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen.

Smitelli says they aimed to recreate the energy felt at Zeno for the film – one of inclusivity and support.

“When you walk into that space, you’re just bombarded with love, and it was so overwhelming for me my first time there,” Smitelli says. “It was so unlike how our regular world functions, sadly.”

DeVido reflected on the experience of leading a film for the first time and singing on camera, too.

“People all the time tell you, especially as a disabled performer, that you don’t fit in this box,” says DeVido, who is in a wheelchair. “We don’t know what to do with you. We don’t know how to make this work. But we did, and we made it work. And we showed you that people are ready to work who are disabled. We have the talent, we have the drive, we have everything that you need.”

She hopes the movie is a catalyst for change in the industry; characters’ disabilities are not mentioned in the movie at all.

Parks Randa says as a result viewers may “question why they felt like maybe that was important” and hopefully, they come away from it “realizing that it doesn’t have to be center stage or part of it at all.”

The movie was inclusive behind the camera too.

“It is possible to authentically represent disability in front of and behind the camera,” says Andrew Pilkington, who co-wrote, produced and appeared in the film.

DeVido’s dream moving forward is to have characters not necessarily ignore their disability but be well-rounded.

“I don’t ignore it,” she says. “I’m aware of it every day. But it’s not the quintessential part of me, it’s not the only part of me. I’m a very full person with hopes and dreams. I like stuff besides talking about being in a wheelchair.”

Parks Randa adds that a film shouldn’t have to include people with disabilities in order to have crew members from that community.

Stimelli hopes this film serves as an example. “Hollywood has just a ton of excuses when it when it comes to trying to do anything that they haven’t seen before,” she says. “One of our main goals was just to have something where that couldn’t be an excuse anymore.”

For Parks Randa, the movie felt like just another project he was making with friends, but it turned into something historic.

“You’re just making a movie together and having a good time,” he says. “And I think over time, we saw like, wow, this is a real movie, who’d have thought.”

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