Film Review: Teens Get It Right in ‘Last Summer of Nathan Lee’

By  | 

Nathan Lee (Harrison Xu) is diagnosed with brain cancer, so in his last year before graduation, he assumes he will never go to college, get married, or have children. His father and sister (Albert Park and Lauren Mei) prefer to think positive, but Nathan focuses on what seems logical for a teen anticipating the end of his life: spending time with his friends–and getting laid.

Watching “The Last Summer of Nathan Lee” (Nov. 22 release on VOD) reminded me of a question I asked a class of ninth graders once: Who would they want with them if they were stranded on a deserted island?

None of them chose a biologist, the expert hunter, the MacGyver or any “practical” choice, almost everyone chose their best friend. 

So everything about Nathan’s “last summer” in relation to the tight-knit group of academically advanced high school friends–their loyalty, their ease with affection toward each other, the diversity of backgrounds and sexual identities–all rings true.  

There’s nothing morbid about the film because it focuses on life not death. There’s little room (or time) for shyness, jealousy or grudges. There’s humor, sex (implied), bisexuality, and the evolution of relationships, but ultimately, the film reflects the bonds of friendship.

Making it all work is a cast of talented young actors, led by Xu, along with Natasha Tina Liu, Matthew Mitchell Espinosa, Dru Perez, and Aaron Guest.

Photo by Ines Laimins
Director Quentin Lee (Photo by Ines Laimins)

Directed by Quentin Lee (“Searching for Anna May Wong”) with a story by Lee and writer Dennis Escobedo, “Last Summer” was inspired by a student Lee knew in high school who died of brain cancer.

Lee said that “having come of age in late 80s, I really miss John Hughes’ teen cinematic dramedies which are both smart and feel good. As I have always wanted to make a teen movie, I told my writer friend Dennis Escobedo my idea. Together we came up with the story and he wrote the screenplay.”

The story evolved as Lee asked himself, “What I would do if I were him and how I would spend the remains of my life?”

In the film, Nathan wants to leave a legacy, and encourages his best friend Dash (Espinosa), who plans to attend film school after graduation, to film everything possible of his remaining life. The perspective of the film is entirely from the person holding the camera, which occasionally alternates.   

When director Lee was in high school in Montreal, Canada, and later got an M.F.A. in film directing at UCLA, positive images of Asian youths were scarce. In interviews for “Last Summer,” Lee has said that he hopes to create stories that his own 7-year-old son “can look up to” when he reaches his teen years.

He couldn’t have imagined pitching a film with a main character such as Nathan Lee when he was a young filmmaker making his first feature, “Shopping for Fangs,” in the late-1990s.

“But now it’s actually possible,” he said. “I think it’s just going to get better.”

“The Last Summer of Nathan Lee,” produced by Margin Films, comes out on VOD Nov. 22, 2023.

Founded by filmmaker Quentin Lee in 1996, the mission of Margin Films / Fresh Fear is to produce culturally challenging commercial entertainment. Since its inception, it has produced over a dozen features and three television series. Margin’s productions have given rising stars such as John Cho, Randall Park, Tyler Posey, Hayden Szeto and Chris Zylka their first theatrical feature roles.

Journalist Laurie Schenden covers the entertainment industry, with many of her notable celebrity interviews appearing in the Los Angeles Times and other national and international publications. As a longtime columnist and feature writer for the LA Times, she also covered events and California destinations for the lifestyle, Outdoors and Travel sections. Laurie Schenden's international pieces include the long-running Where Are They Now celebrity feature for Spotlight Magazine, published in five languages. Laurie has also contributed to numerous documentary films, and produces content via Saving Grace Films.

You must be logged in to post a comment Login