The sweet ride through childhood has its hiccups, but is a pleasant watch overall.
What I like about most James Ponsoldt movies is that it’s pretty easy to relate to them. You could say that the director’s most acclaimed projects are stories about how life gives you anxiety, and not necessarily just when his characters are facing massive stakes. In The End of the Tour, for example, a best-selling author struggles with the idea that fame might turn him into a parody of himself. In The Spectacular Now, a teenage boy thinks the “best years of his life” are about to be over and has no idea what to do next. In Summering, this element comes in a simpler form, but it’s there, and it’s also the film’s best aspect.
Summering centers around a group of four 11-year-old girls who are about to start middle school. This can be scary for anyone, but what makes it worse is the fact that they won’t be together for the first time in years. So Lola (Sanai Victoria), Daisy (Lia Barnett), Dina (Madalen Mills), and Mari (Eden Grace Redfield) try their best to enjoy their last summer weekend together before going to different schools – but their last three days together gets more difficult to go through once they find a dead body in their secret location dubbed “Terabithia."
When it comes to movies centered around children, innocence is often a major element that, coupled with a directorial approach that tells the story through the child’s point of view, makes for powerful stories like Room and The Florida Project. With Summering, the story here is closer to what we’ve seen in movies like Stand By Me, but what elevates it is how Ponsoldt makes sure to include scenes in which adults observe the four girls much like we do when watching the movie – with a sense of nostalgia and the feeling that whatever they’re doing to enjoy themselves has a lot more value than they realize. And it’s not only the kids’ parents that do that – throughout the movie, once can see a number of random adult characters smiling to themselves as they observe the girls wandering around.
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Not that the four protagonists are oblivious to their situation and surroundings: Even if they don’t fully realize what drifting apart from a friend means and its long-term implications, they know and state that it’s something they don’t want to go through. But it’s that half-awareness and fear of losing something that makes us fall in love with them, and laugh with them as well. Many times throughout the movie, Ponsoldt and Benjamin Percy’s script finds funny moments with the girls being “wise," like in the moment when one of them states confidently that “there’s probably a lot of things we don’t know."
Another great aspect of Summering is how nicely it depicts the relationship between the girls and their mothers. Even though Megan Mullally, Lake Bell, Ashley Madewke, and Sarah Cooper don’t get a lot of screen time, we can quickly get a sense of how their individual mother-daughter dynamics work, and each of them feels distinct enough for us to understand how they try their best to balance their daughters’ freedom with helicopter parenting. Summering easily presents how these dynamics work, showing that Dina feels slightly pressured into being a grade-A student; Mari has learned how to deal with her mother’s obsession; Daisy has had to grow up in record time, and Lola understands that her mother can read her like a book.
Summering also subtly recognizes that it’s pretty common for mothers to do the heavy lifting when it comes to parenting, even when fathers are “present." Out of the four fathers in the story, only one of them lingers long enough to make an impression – the one who’s not worth remembering. Another unnecessary element is the dead body aspect of the story, not because of what it represents in the story – a part of us always dies when we move further steps closer to adulthood – but rather because of how it harms some characters that were otherwise carefully constructed until a certain point in the narrative. Ultimately, it feels like the dead body investigation arc in Summering ends up harming the movie more than helping, since just a story of the four girls – and formidable young actresses, it’s important to note – not wanting summer to be over would be more than enough to make us feel connected and nostalgic, just like in previous James Ponsoldt movies we were able to relate to simpler life events.
Granted, you can’t tell an adventure story with kids without having them go somewhere unsupervised. As some events unfold in Summering, however, it’s just plain impossible to believe the four girls would remain missing for that many hours, especially in a relatively small town. The movie establishes that Mari has a spy app on her phone, which would at least denounce to her mother the last place the girl was in before the cell phone died. Also, there’s at least one eyewitness – Dina’s sister – that could tell where the girls were when they were seen for the last time. But, when it becomes clear that the girls are indeed missing, the mothers don’t seem to mind sitting and waiting for them to come back, even though one of them is a police officer.
Summering provides the perfect territory for whoever wants to feel nostalgic about childhood, or just wants to enjoy spending time with kids trading clever banter. But the journey gets a little less sweet once you realize that the movie lets go of basic logic just so its main characters can have a bit of fun and bring their journey full circle. That’s some really irresponsible parenting, but a slap in the hand can make us forget this slip.
Rating: B+
Summering is now playing in theaters.
Erick Massoto is a Brazilian writer who’s always loved film and TV and is obsessed with making lists. He can also name about 700 Pokémon and Digimon off the top of his head, but sadly no one has ever asked him to do it.
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