‘Summering’ Review: James Ponsoldt’s Pleasant But Thin Coming-of-Ager


On a balmy Labor Day weekend, four best friends find a corpse in the woods, the discovery marking the end of innocence as they approach adolescence. If you think you’ve seen this one before, “Summering” makes no apologies for the resemblance. Down to a stolen pistol stuffed in a backpack, James Ponsoldt’s quiet, sunny coming-of-age drama plays like an all-female homage to Rob Reiner’s “Stand By Me” — a reference that won’t mean much for the tweens it is aimed at, but who may make some of their parents a bit foggy. Yet nostalgia is perhaps the strongest emotion engendered by this breeze-blown dandelion seed from a movie, which nods to the bittersweet complexities of growing up and coming to terms with age. adult, but never goes so far as to dramatize them completely.

As such, “Summering” is a pleasant enough watch for patient and thoughtful children and their elders, but something of a disappointment from writer-director James Ponsoldt – returning to his cinematic sweet spot. mild-mannered independent after Tom’s misfire of 2017. Thriller with Hanks “The Circle” and a later TV payback. At its best, its sixth feature is fleetingly reminiscent of the soft, gently melancholy pleasures of Ponsoldt’s works like “The Spectacular Now” and “The End of the Tour”, though too often it feels like the youthful accent of its the latter comes with a broader and flimsier approach to character and storytelling. The fact that the film first premiered in Sundance’s Kids sidebar rather than the more high-profile installments for which its director is known is indicative of “Summering’s” limited crossover potential, with this Bleecker release. Street likely to eventually find its young audience on streaming platforms.

For a few enchanted minutes at the start, however, it appears that Ponsoldt has something rarer and more special: like Céline Sciamma’s “Petite Maman”, a film with an arthouse sensibility that can nevertheless speak directly to children who fall on it. Its four young protagonists are introduced via an eerie, dreamily lit indoor game of hide-and-seek – previewing a series of less evocative scary jumps scattered throughout the rest of the film – before tumbling into the big, bright suburban exterior, screaming and laughing. , and embarked on their last daily adventure of the summer. Taking his time, Ponsoldt follows the quartet as they walk and talk in the nearby woods, caressed by Greta Zozula’s shimmering, magical lens, while repeated crossfades capture the genuinely languorous and arbitrary nature of their conversation.

Middle school is just days away and the girls’ heads are swarming with hopes, fears and ideas. Daisy (Lia Barnett) complains about her ordinary name, wondering if a new school offers a chance to reinvent herself with a new nickname; Husband (Eden Grace Redfield) heads to a Catholic academy and worries about the uniform she will have to wear. Spiritually-inclined Lola (Sanai Victoria) and rigidly fact-oriented Dina (Madalen Mills) clash over their opposing worldviews, but beneath all that awesome chatter, it’s not hard to hear the subtext of the story. childhood anxiety. The girls valiantly try to stay in the moment, but can’t help but project a silent, shared worry that their friendship, like the fading summer, is coming to an end.

So far, so poignant. But once “Summering” stops that ruminative staging and focuses on telling a story, all that tricky subtext shifts to text, and a slightly Nickelodeon tone seeps into Ponsoldt and Benjamin’s slender script. Percy. The theme of adulthood pervading tender youth is squarely literalized when, upon arriving at their secret playground (revealingly named “Terabithia”), the girls discover the lifeless body of a grown man, who appears to have jumped off a nearby bridge. While Mari’s timid impulse to call the police, her friends talk her out of it. Their mothers are overprotective enough as it is, they say, so what effect will trauma like this have on their future freedom?

If that’s a plausible line of thought, that’s also where the film’s credibility ends as the girls resolve the situation in Nancy Drew instead. Spot various burglaries, adult space invasions, and an amateur session, while their respective mothers – who, oddly enough, aren’t all helicopter enough to let their daughters have cellphones – wonder what they’re up to. That there’s not a whole lot of mystery to solve isn’t a problem, given that it’s little more than an incentive for the girls to overcome their own insecurities and concerns about the life ahead. “Before, it was better to be older, but now it doesn’t seem so great,” Mari muses, in case we missed the message.

But “Summering” never quite unlocks the girls as individual personalities, and after that promising discursive introduction, the script defines them with unique sitcom-style character traits. Ponsoldt and Percy don’t always show an ear for the way Gen Alpha talks and thinks, while awkward lines like “We were probably going to go to TikTok or watch a movie later” sound like tense attempts to inject currency in a script with a wacky sense of time and place. (That Dina is a “CSI” fanatic is perhaps her hardest detail to swallow.) Beyond a subplot involving Daisy’s absentee father — men, indeed, are rarely seen in the world. of the film – the inner life of girls is largely closed to us. But the same goes for the details that are easier to fill in. The inclusion of Taylor Swift’s charmingly melancholy folk reverie “Seven” in the end credits is about the heaviest clue we’re getting as to the girls’ incidental passions and fandoms.

Interestingly, some of the film’s most emotional and natural moments come when the girls are distant from each other, trying to find a common language instead with their mothers – played with good retirement grace by Megan Mullally , Lake Bell, Ashley Madekwe and the viral comic Sarah Tonnelier. A beautiful scene of Mullally alone, trying to balance panic and diplomacy as she leaves her daughter a worried voicemail, provides the kind of textured real-world underpinning that “Summering” could use more of. Which isn’t to discount its stray and alluring forays into magical realism, such as when the girls, upon entering “Terabithia”, briefly and dizzily defy gravity, or when a naïve mural of a tree in a deserted school hallway suddenly loses control. – printed sheets. Too much “Summering,” however, takes place in an unsatisfying middle ground: embedded neither in real life nor in the restless, malleable imaginations of its heroines.

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