Summering wears its heart on its sleeve like few other films.
I don’t recall the last time I watched a movie as unapologetically earnest as director James Ponsoldt’s sunkissed coming-of-age tale. Whether that helps or hinders the film is up for debate.
Summering tells the story of best friends Dina (Madalen Mills), Daisy (Lia Barnett), Mari (Eden Grace Redfield), and Lola (Sanai Victoria). They’ve grown up together in a small, out-of-the-way town, and now, their friendship will be tested for the first time in their young lives.
It’s the last week of summer break before starting their new middle schools, and the girls worry this new dynamic will alter their friendships. They decide to savour their last summer days by sneaking off to their secret hideout in the woods.
As much as the girls cling to their childhood, they can’t maintain their age of innocence forever. The adult world comes crashing into their lives like a wrecking ball when they discover a dead man facedown near their forest hideaway. The girls use their discovery as an excuse to have one last adventure together and head into town to uncover the mystery of the dead body.
It’s impossible to watch this film and not think of Rob Reiner’s 1986 classic Stand By Me. While the films share a similar premise, they’re worlds apart tonally.
Summering lacks Stand By Me’s pervasive sense of danger. It’s Stand By Me with the sharp edges whittled down. These tweens aren’t trudging through leech-infested water or fleeing from psychotic bullies. But there is still a degree of darkness coursing beneath the film’s glossy sheen.
The threat in Summering isn’t physical; it’s emotional. The girls have entered that strange no man’s land between childhood and adulthood. They’re about to have their lives shaken up in ways they can’t even conceive. And they’re thrust into a complicated reality they haven’t learned to navigate. Throughout the film we see these anxieties manifest, and witness how the girls’ friendship gives them the courage they need to face new challenges.
Summering explores issues I haven’t thought much about since my own adolescence. Even though I was never a 12-year-old girl, I related to the cast’s struggle. Their fears and insecurities had me flashing back to the issues stressing me out at that age. While these worries and doubts seem trivial now, they were life and death issues for my younger self.
Even though this movie speaks to me, I’m pleased by the fact it’s not for me. This movie is tailor-made for daughters, nieces, and little sisters; moviegoers too often left out of pop culture’s spotlight.
Nobody ever produced an all-female version of The Goonies or Explorers, so Ponsoldt does his part to balance the scale. These young ladies don’t sit around gossiping about guys and competing for male attention. In fact, this movie is almost devoid of any (living) person with a Y chromosome.
This coming-of-age story is so sugary sweet it can come off as though it’s pandering. Ponsoldt crafted a vision of small-town life that feels as detached from reality as Hawkins, Indiana (Stranger Things supernatural hotspot).
Ponsoldt and Benjamin Percy’s screenplay is the film’s weakest element. Dialogue can be too on-the-nose, and the tone seesaws from scene to scene. But even though the script does a poor job fleshing out the four leads, the cast’s vibrant performances help mask the issue. The film is at its best as we watch the tight-knit squad wander about town. Their company is so pleasant it barely matters that we never get a strong sense of who these kids are.
Even though Ponsoldt doesn’t always hit the mark this film comes across as a labour of love. I enjoyed the surreal flourishes Summering uses to celebrate the magic of childhood friendships, but when the story shifts back to the real world, the cracks start to show.
Summering premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Head here for more from this year’s festival.