How the Director of the Summer’s Best Queer Buddy Comedy Learned from Greta Gerwig and Éric Rohmer

Noah Schamus, as many creatives did, used their time unemployed in the pandemic lockdown to write a feature. The result is the warm, wise, and unsentimental “Summer Solstice,” an Éric Rohmer-inspired tale of friendship about trans actor Leo (Bobbi Salvör Menuez) and the whirling dervish in a daffodil dress who lands back in his life, his long-ago and cisgender friend Eleanor (Marianne Rendón).

But beyond lessons learned in the pandemic or years before at Columbia film school during undergrad, “Summer Solstice” writer/director Schamus also learned a great deal from an unlikely source of inspiration: director Greta Gerwig. In 2019, Schamus cut their teeth on a major studio movie as a post-production assistant on “Little Women.”

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It ”was incredible to just see the scope of what is possible for a filmmaker who comes from the indie space, from a mumblecore space, who then has stepped up into these sort of enormous and wonderful productions,” Schamus, who is back in Brooklyn after 10 months back at home in Minnesota, told IndieWire over Zoom. “When the pandemic hit, the film industry shut down, and I was like, this is now a chance for me to write.”

Schamus’ queer, Upstate New York twist on the buddy comedy has earned rave reviews so far in limited release from Cartilage Films. Here, Eleanor and Leo jettison to the idyllic Hudson just outside the city for a weekend getaway of catch-up and day-drinking turned emotionally havoc-raining. It’s now playing in New York at IFC Center and will soon travel to Los Angeles and beyond. (Cartilage was founded by former IFC Films distribution executive Jasper Basch and has also released low-budget indies including the comedy “Free Time.”)

But does Schamus want to rise to the heights of Gerwig, who post-“Barbie” success has said she always wanted to be a studio filmmaker after all? Or will personal stories like “Summer Solstice” remain all that resonate from a creation standpoint?

Summer Solstice
‘Summer Solstice’Courtesy Everett Collection

“It’s something I’ve been asking myself recently,” Schamus said. “My heart is really in indie filmmaking. My favorite films are the films that have been made on the margins … and embraced by lots of people who love films on the margins or even more mainstream audiences, because I think that there’s a lot of creative and formal freedom to making scrappier films. Of course, I want to work with larger budgets to A. pay my excellent collaborators as much as they are worth, and then B. be able to be ambitious in the visual storytelling. But I still really have this indie, scrappy spirit within me that I hope to maintain moving forward.”

It’s those scrappy indie spirits that are having less luck at the box office, with the pipeline now being from indie filmmaker to blockbuster picture maker (see: not just Gerwig, but more recently Lee Isaac Chung with “Twisters”). “Summer Solstice” is Schamus’ first feature, and the auspicious start of a skilled filmmaker; shot by cinematographer Jack Davis, whom Schamus knew from school, the film has the glow of a never-ending summer day. One that gets more stressful, anyway, once long-buried truths of the past start simmering between Leo and Eleanor — along with more than a few microaggressions on Eleanor’s end, as she has not seen her college-age best friend since he transitioned.

“There’s been a wonderful, warm embrace and a lot of stories coming out about trans and non-binary people,” said Schamus, who is non-binary. But “there are still things that we have to shake off about our ideas about trans people, and I think Bobbi responded to the way that Leo is navigating some of the crappier roles coming his way that he’s auditioning for.”

Leo’s world as a struggling, burgeoning actor in New York — he is at one point asked by a casting agent whether he is a “transgender man or a transgender woman” — is so crisply drawn you’d almost think Schamus was an actor themself.

“There’s a running bit about Leo having to audition for this role and then Eleanor him these bad directions that throw him off, and I fully pulled that from when I was an actor in my sophomore year of high school,” Schamus said. “I auditioned for something and I had a good friend be like, ‘Do it different.’ And then I went in and threw the audition and then was cast as a chorus member. I was so upset that I didn’t get the lead.”

SUMMER SOLSTICE, from left: Marianne Rendon, Bobbi Salvor Menuez, 2023. © Cartilage Films / courtesy Everett Collection
‘Summer Solstice’Courtesy Everett Collection

But isn’t it sometimes better to be a chorus member than the lead? Schamus agrees that’s true. And in some ways, in “Summer Solstice,” Leo is such a social wallflower that he’s almost a chorus member in his own life — especially while struggling to open up about his transness. Over the course of the weekend of the film, he’s wearing a chest binder, and so he’s nervous to go into the pool in front of other people.

Meanwhile, Eleanor is in a playfully downward spiral after a breakup, so they’re both going through it in ways that are ordinary and everyday to us all. That Leo is also trans is just one aspect of the story.

“I really wanted to tell a story about a trans character that is not just about them struggling because they’re trans,” Schamus said. “I think being trans in the world is really hard, but that’s not the only thing that makes life hard. It’s also: transness isn’t the only thing that makes life beautiful. It’s the kind of amalgamation of all of our experiences and all of our identities and really wanting to make a film that’s sort of an invitation to audiences to understand that trans people are part of our community, and they are just as complex as anybody else in the world.”

“Summer Solstice” also shrewdly unpeels the emotional onion of a long-time friendship in ways rarely explored in film independent or otherwise. Think of Claudia Weill’s “Girlfriends,” the 1976 movie that inspired Lena Dunham’s “Girls,” and Schamus sees as a “beautiful exploration of what it means to be coming of age in your 20s as … [two] people are growing in very different directions, but both feeling kind of lost.” Kelly Reichardt’s “Old Joy,” one of the great bucolic buddy comedies, was also a touchstone.

But French master maker of leisurely movies about restless people Éric Rohmer (including “A Summer’s Tale”) is another cinematic north star for the delicate and shimmery story of hardening friendship that is “Summer Solstice.”

“I do think that there is something really wonderful about the pacing of [Rohmer’s] films that does feel sort of queer because it’s demanding that, even in the sillier moments, we just have to sit with someone, [and] his characters feeling pretty uncomfortable with themselves for the majority of the film,” Schamus said. “Not to be too Hollywood, but the stakes are so low for these characters, but they feel so important to me by the end of the film, and I think that’s really wonderful.”

“Summer Solstice” is now playing at IFC Center in New York, expanding to Laemmle Glendale on Friday, June 21.

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