Summer in the Forest: A Quiet Respite in a World of Noise

Sometimes people ask us how Plugged In chooses what movies it reviews. The short, simple answer is this: We watch the movies that make the most noise.

I don’t mean we just restrict ourselves to loud movies. It’s more of a cultural noise we’re talking about: What movies are going to play in thousands of theaters? Which ones will make millions of dollars? What’s stirring the biggest buzz? Our small staff just can’t get to everything. So no matter how lovely and lyrical a tiny indie flick might be, or however sincere and profound a micro-budget Christian movie could feel, we can’t cover those at the expense of, say, Black Panther.

But every now and then, I watch movies that I don’t review—movies that hardly anyone will see. And sometimes, they’re the ones that stick with me the most.

Summer in the Forest, playing in New York and opening this weekend in Los Angeles, doesn’t have a single car chase or exploding building. It’s a quiet documentary about L’Arche, a program begun decades ago by Catholic philosopher Jean Vanier. L’Arche caters to people with severe mental disabilities—folks who in years past might be institutionalized.. It now encompasses 149 locations in 37 countries, but Vanier still lives in its first, located in a picturesque village outside Paris. He’s spent decades growing old with the community’s longtime residents—folks who’ve found a home there, folks who,frankly, couldn’t live anywhere else.

I had a chance to interview Randall Wright, the director for Summer in the Forest. (You can read the whole interview here, if you like.) Like most of us, he harbored a certain unease about folks who are “different” than we are. “I had a great aunt who my family regarded as simple, and she had a very distorted face,” he said. “And when I was 3 or 4, when she came over to pick me up, I think I was—no, I know I was frightened of her. And I’ve always thought about that fear and what it was about.”

That fear, and exploring why that fear even existed, became one launch point for the documentary. The other was visiting the L’Arche community in London. Wright says:

I didn’t really know quite why I was there or what I would feel. And then as soon as I spent the morning there, I started realizing that this was the first place I’ve been to for many, many years where I felt I wasn’t pretending. It was a sort of coming home. It was a place where instead of worrying about projecting a sort of professional identity … I was in a place where all that counted was my ability to relate to someone else, and someone else’s ability to relate to me. And I suppose I kind of fell in love with that, really, as a place and as an experience.

You get a sense of that peace in Summer in the Forest. Wright treats L’Arche’s residents with respect and grace, just as Vanier does. He allows them to say what they want to, to show as much or as little of their lives as they wish. And what lands on screen may be subtle and quiet, but no less affecting for that.

Wright says making this movie changed his life. “It’s sort of how the world should be,” he says of L’Arche. “A lot of people talk about L’Arche … as a world turned upside down. There’s a kind of inversion of the usual power structure, you know. What I want to reflect in Summer in the Forest is this incredible beauty, this extreme confidence, this sense of hope. This isn’t a place that’s upside down. It’s actually a place that really, really works.”

Summer in the Forest isn’t a Christian movie, in spite of Vanier’s (and Wright’s) faith background. Each L’Arche community chooses its own religious underpinnings, if it chooses them at all.

But as I talked to Wright, it occurred to me that there’s something deeply, and counterculturally, Christian about what Vanier has tried to do with L’Arche (and what the movie itself conveys): the idea that the foolishness of God is more profound than the wisdom of man—and that sometimes our weaknesses are more important than our strengths.

L’Arche is made for people who suffer from mental disability. Most won’t learn or interact or achieve in the ways we do. And when many of us interact with such people, we can feel both fortunate and frightened.

But I think Wright discovered what Vanier has long understood: that in the midst of that weakness, we find something beautiful, something essential … and something we’ve lost. We lose sight of how that very weakness gives us permission to acknowledge and even accept the weaknesses in us that are no less crippling, no less profound. They give us an excuse to be honest and transparent. And that honesty becomes a catalyst to love people a little better.

We live in a noisy, hyper-competitive world. It’s a world of striving and strife, a place where we, like Wright, wear masks for every occasion. And while it seems as though those masks could and should fall off when we’re at church or with our Christian friends, it’s often there where they’re more firmly secured than ever. We run from our weaknesses. We pretend to be perfect.

Striving for success definitely isn’t a bad thing: As Wright himself says, we should try to use our gifts to their upmost.

But there’s something freeing about, as he says, simply relating to people—whoever they are and wherever they are. To treat those around us not as a means to an end, but as God’s marvelous creations, even if they’re different than who we are. How engaging and embracing others with no thought of deadlines or goals or the noise of our world can feel, just a little, like home.

Maybe it’s wholly appropriate that Summer in the Forest won’t attract, most likely, a lot of attention: It refuses to shout in the midst of our culture’s entertainment cacophony. It, like the community it showcases, is a retreat for the few.

As it rolls out to a select few cities in the weeks to come, perhaps this documentary might be a retreat worth exploring. (You can check out what cities in will be screening in here.) But even if we don’t see the movie, perhaps we can keep its attitude in mind. That the “upside down” world shown in L’Arche, and the one hinted at in Scripture, can actually work pretty well.