SUMMERING– 2 STARS
The movie landscape will always welcome more opportunities for female-driven stories, especially during the stage of adolescence. When such films can come from either female writers or directors, the authenticity value is even better. The lists of great female-centric coming of age movies and those directed by women are too short. Outliers like Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade aside, the “mansplaining,” for lack of a better word, is overly prevalent. That is the fundamental flaw with Summering.
The Spectacular Now director James Ponsoldt, as well as his novelist co-writer Benjamin Percy, is coming from a good place to create Summering. The filmmaker has stated he wrote this for his own daughter as a hopeful exercise pushing against the fear and anxiety present during this time of COVID. That’s more than admirable. Putting four genuine teens at the center of a film exploring a crucial transition point of childhood and would-be formative experience is a worthwhile chosen focus. The warm season is the right setting.
Those window dressing elements are easy to get right, and Summering looks the part. What factors are not, however, are the motivations and machinations happening on the emotional and intellectual levels inside characters different from their creators. A genuineness is missing.
Summering follows four early teenage girls trying to enjoy their last late August weekend before starting middle school for the first time. The quartet are a rainbow mix of interests and backgrounds that have been together for a fair number of years. Equally coincidental is that all four are primarily raised by their mothers without regular father presences. The establishing shots and introductory moments bringing them together clue the viewer in on the differing personality types assembled.
Deena (Madalen Mills of Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Story) appears to be the natural leader and most free-spirited. She is flanked by a pair of opposites in the tall and holistic Lola (Sanai Victoria of Diary of a Future President) and the do-gooder religious runt Mari (Eden Grace Redfield of Andi Mack). Rounding out the group is Summering’s pensive narrator, the quiet and neutral Daisy (Lia Barnett of Maggie Smith Is Gone). Their matching mothers offer differing involvement presences and inspirational connections to their daughters.
Of the bunch, the phone-less and earring-less Daisy has the hardest home life. Her mother Laura (In a World… director/star Lake Bell) is a beleaguered police officer who is often exhausted from giving Daisy fair attention and guidance. She also has not told her daughter full truths about her absent father. Also, Mari is facing a difficult crossroads of moving to a Catholic school, at her mother Stacie’s (comedienne Megan Mullally, playing it straight) behest, while the rest of the girls stay in public school.
The looming dread is very real and made worse by a frightening discovery. Near their special “Terabithia” hangout spot in the creekside woods beneath a roadway bridge in town, the girls discover a dead body. It’s a younger man in a business suit with no identification, and the sight of him brings out more atypical curiosity than shaken composure.
LESSON #1: COMPOUNDING LIES AND BAD DECISIONS– Rather than report it to the authorities or their parents, the girls move the body (Mistake #1) and make a “privacy pact” to not tell anyone (Mistake #2) until after they take the weekend to investigate the man’s true identity. Sure, teens can be flighty and make questionable choices, but even this escalating predicament is a stretch for the four well-adjusted young ladies we were introduced to at the beginning. This warped quest devolves in Summering into a fallen domino trail of compounded lies and bad decisions from seances, parent-tracked web searches, ignored curfews, breaking-and-entering, destroyed phones, and even stealing a handgun.
That all aside, to their credit, Ponsoldt and Percy attempt meaningful arcs in Summering. Injecting the fragility of life and death into this young age group can and should be a moral-rattling experience. The feelings and reactions should be big and reverberate beyond normal boundaries. However, just when the movie ventures deeper into fractured places of teen psychology and challenging family struggles, one of three storytelling or filmmaking disservices occur.
LESSON #1: WE GET IT. SUMMER IS PRETTY– First, Summering lets the titular season be an excuse for wandering emphasis. Daisy’s narrating nucleus opens the film with a segmented monologue that celebrates the spirit of summer with lines like, “Everything is alive and anything is possible with summer” and “It’s hard to be sad in summer.” While cosmically true, those notes are screenplay contrivances and slathered wisdom way above a girl this age, no matter how grounded from the norm a character is presented. Even further, the cinematography by Greta Zozula (Becky) and editing of Darrin Navarro (The Lovers) made sure to plaster the film with inserts of natural and sun-kissed imagery as figurative fluttering butterflies ready to distract from the proper drama at hand.
LESSON #2: IF YOU DON’T NEED IT, DON’T DO IT– Secondly, Summering jolts viewers with needless spookiness. At random moments of comfort or pause, some of our four girls will see the enlivened presence of their discovered corpse, telegraphed by score stingers from Drum & Lace (TV’s revival of I Know What You Did Last Summer). These instances are played for mild jump scares, which are fine, if Summering was intentionally veering to the horror genre. The movie is most certainly not, which makes this a grossly mismatched vibe choice. The hauntings go nowhere where they become foolish inclusions that, once again, detract from the heart of the story. This is especially the case where, by the end, the movie’s whole Nancy Drew-wannabe scenario dangles as a majorly unfinished plot thread.
LESSON #3: THERE IS NO “GIRLS WILL BE GIRLS” EQUIVALENCE– Third and lastly, the girls are too often simplified to pre-teen hijinks. Granted, much like boys, groups of girls can have their gross stories, personality quirks, occasional clashes, comfortable honesties, and peer pressure catalysts between them. When those dynamics happen, they too are swerves of unearned convenience against the truer conflicts and more serious issues. It’s as if Summering finishes its point by saying (and literally showing) that everything’s OK if the girls have each other, do cartwheels, and dance. That’s the perception and it’s a painfully shallow one.
There is incomplete depth all over the place in Summering. Examining the relationships between these girls and their loyal mothers, the many absentee male examples, and the legitimate anxieties accompanying the apprehensive change between elementary and secondary school are heavy obstacles not easily healed by pouring on literal or figurative warmth. So much is glazed over for sunny rays, amateur detective aimlessness, and scary sideshows. Once emotional breaking points do arrive, like for Daisy, Mari, and their featured mothers in what are commendable scenes, not enough investment was spent to make them matter. With optimistic confidence, one has to think those three cited disfavors and this lack of impact would not happen, or at least happen less, coming from more authentic voices writing the script.