A discovery of a dead body by a small band of pre-teen girls becomes a reflection of life and a coming-of-age portrait of friendship in James Ponsoldt’s (The End of the Tour, The Spectacular Now) Summering. The film is a junior-league version of Petite Mamam by the way of Stand By Me with some small aspects of Miranda July thrown in the mix. The film offers some relief. For starters, the set-up of the story has pre-teenage girls with single moms as their parents, and the story is harmless and simple as it attempts to explore the bittersweet inevitably of becoming an adult, yet Ponsoldt’s feature comes off as very slight and inherently flawed as it doesn’t quite dig deep enough as it could.
As such, the film is steeped in innocence and doesn’t have a cruel bone in its body other than confronting the cruelty of adulthood. The film should please wiser children and their elders alike looking for films more thoughtful than what is to be found in mainstream family fare, but Ponsoldt’s sixth feature comes off as a disappointment after his previous works, and if anything, Summering feels more like a novice work in terms of execution in the writing and performances. Both in the dialogue and in some of the visual metaphors, there is something that feels very forced and unnatural in the execution. While this would work if the film had a more otherworldly style to it, akin to the work of Miranda July, Ponsoldt’s execution is too literal, and the film becomes too broad. His latest film doesn’t quite reach the authenticity or rawness of his earlier films, like The Speculator Now, Smashed, or The End of the Tour did.
The film’s setting is during Labor Day weekend, and the first day of middle school is quickly approaching with days. The group of pre-teen girls holds anxieties, doubts, and fears about going back. The characters in the film include: Daisy (Lia Barnett), who dreads her name and hopes going to the new school will allow her to reinvent herself with a new moniker; Mari (Eden Grace Refield), is going to a different school at a Catholic school, where she dreads having to wear a dress. Dina is very sophisticated and is certainly the brain of the group, while Lola (Sanai Victoria) is more into the spiritual realm, and they often hold debates on their opposing viewpoints. At its core, Ponsoldt’s narrative builds up a sincere story about youthful angst and the slow steps of becoming more like adults. In one particular scene, Lola begins to walk backwards and pontificates, “What would happen if time were to reverse itself if we walked backwards instead of forwards? There is a melancholic spirit to what Ponsoldt is doing here with living in the moment, like how time quickly slips away and how the next dreadful step of what is ahead is always nearby.
These are all delicate and mature themes that Ponsoldt builds up, but unfortunately, the film loses its artful momentum as the story progresses, as the film’s tonal shifts feel awkward as it begins to feel more like a TV movie or something you would find in a Disney Channel movie. The narrative becomes more literalized, the dialogue feels more forced, and the themes become minor. The film takes a more Nancy Drew turn once they discover the dead body as their secret play spot, where they find the dead body of an adult man, who obviously jumped off a bridge that hovers over the field. Mari instantly says they should call, but the rest of the girls pressure her out since they believe it would bring more stress from their over-protective mothers. Which is a very odd storytelling decision considering Daisy’s mother (Lake Bell) is a police officer, but that would just add extra pages to the already slim narrative.
The film begins to alter into a Miranda July or David Robert Mitchell since nobody has a cellphone, and you begin to wonder if this is a stylistic choice on Ponsoldt’s part to not have modern technology be a part of the setting, but it comes off more as a credibility and writing issue than a creative decision once the girls begin talking about watching Tik Tok later.
With a beautiful and bittersweet build-up, the film never quite dives into deep characterizations of each of the girls and their personal anxieties. Instead, it resorts to more sitcom-level characterizations as the girls start a Nancy Drew style investigation with clues about the dead body that lead to the bar and eventually break into their nearby school to use a classroom computer to look up the identity of the dead man they found on the dark web. There are also awkward jump scares that feel straight out of a 90s Goosebump episode of the dead body coming back to life in the bathroom that add to the film’s inconsistent tonal shifts. We also never get deep insights into the girl’s traumas, anxieties, and yearnings other than a brief glimpse in the opening and get a quick moment of Daisy’s absent father returning home after being gone for days to grab some clothes, which becomes a lightly sketched and dramatically inert subplot in the narrative that needed a lot more dramatic flair.
You could counter that many elements of many other genres are trying to come into fruition in this film as it aims at being a coming-of-age story, a teenage angst drama, and a mystery movie, which all become woven into Summering, though Ponsoldt’s strives to do so much by doing so little, and while the film has some endearing moments, the perspective never fully surfaces due to just how overstuffed the film becomes, and sadly, the end result only intermittently hits. With that, the film gives us an adult idea of what smart kids would reflect, while avoiding a complexities and consistencies of actual adolescence. Somewhere, there is probably a satisfying story to be told, but somehow everything feels ill-conceived.