Promising on paper, Summering is a frustrating film on almost every level. I went in with high hopes, as would anyone who loved James Ponsoldt’s previous modern classic of the coming-of-age genre, The Spectacular Now. In that and a handful of other independent films, Ponsoldt proved himself as a sincere and adept artist at capturing nuanced relationships, capturing situations that felt real, and easy to get lost in and relate to. His previous film, The Circle, felt like a misfire on multiple levels– focusing too much on muddled expressions of big themes and not enough on character development and underusing a bigger budget and stars like Tom Hanks in the process. Unfortunately, while Summering was clearly made for a much smaller sum and would seem like a more character-driven, down-to-earth project for such a promising director, it brings me no joy to report that it falls into many of the same issues.
Summering is a difficult film to summarize due to the muddled way many of its central plot points come off. The film focuses primarily on a tight-knit group of four preteen girls on their last week of summer vacation before they enter 6th grade – introspective sort-of-protagonist Daisy (Lia Barnett), spirituality-minded Lola (Sanai Victoria), academic Dina (Madalen Mills), and nervous “prude” Mari (Eden Grace Redfield). The friends find a dead body while playing in the woods and decide to use their last few days together investigating who the person was and how he got there. The various subplots loosely connected to this inciting incident explore the main characters’ relationships with each other, their parents, and their anxieties about the future, from middle school to eventual adulthood.
The main issue here is muddled writing and execution of concepts that sometimes come off as actively amateurish. The dialogue feels tin-eared and crashingly obvious, often stating themes so blatantly that the lines feel more like writer’s notes on what the filmmakers intended to convey, rather than real words you might hear in a conversation. I don’t mind artificial-sounding dialogue if it’s done with artistry or style, but much of the scripting here feels flat and imprecise, making it ring all the more false.
Several tonal shifts throughout the story also feel misguided, and subplots come across as half-baked. A scene where one girl’s cell phone ends up being destroyed is played for broad comedy, bookended between two more contemplated scenes in a way that left me mildly incredulous. There are many scenes throughout that attempt to dip into horror-movie imagery, with a ghostly version of the central deceased MacGuffin man haunting the characters, which feel all the more inexplicable due to a total lack of resolution. Some of these digressions feel like an attempt to root the story in a child’s point of view, where imagination is overactive and events often feel exaggerated. With stronger writing or a clearer overall vantage point for the story, that may have been conveyed better than the end result suggests.
The four lead characters have been well-sketched in certain key details that underline how different they are from each other, and how many different ways there are to develop at this time of life: For instance, Mari is the least adventurous of the four girls, but the first to get a cell phone; Dina is “the smart one,” but also the most rebellious. Unfortunately, the development proves inconsistent– Daisy has no character traits beyond the familial dysfunction she experiences and the way she reacts to it, which proves frustrating when the film pivots to focus on her in the last act. So much effort has been paid to her dramatic reactions and faux-profound narration, but she never feels like someone you might relate to or know, the way the other characters sometimes do.
The most glaring issues come to light during the many extended scenes where the girls are together onscreen having long conversations. Their lines feel stilted, and the actors often seem uncomfortable delivering them. The blame for this must go to direction on some level– all four lead performers do fine in scenes with other characters such as their parents or siblings. One of the best scenes in the entire film is an early conversation between Mari and her mother, played by Megan Mullaly. The banter between the two of them feels specific, realistic, and charming to watch; all these qualities are missing, to a sometimes intense degree, from the central friend-group sequences in the film.
Some awkwardness is natural when you’re 10 years old, of course, but to me, it never felt intentional, or well-utilized, but more suggested a lack of chemistry reads or rehearsal time before filming began. Rarely do the main characters plausible or compelling in practice as a supposedly very close friend group, and this is the aspect that most tried my patience throughout the film.
The question I keep asking myself is this: what is Summering trying to accomplish, and who is it really meant to be for? In some ways, it seems to be attempting to recreate the vibe of certain character-focused classics of children’s fiction, like the works of E.L. Konigsberg or Beverly Cleary– books about kids having slightly exaggerated adventures but still ultimately facing down real-life issues in their lives.
The more PG-13 elements of the film suggest that it may be an attempt to call back to a less-sanitized era of children’s film – something I heartily welcome in theory, but that feels a little too insistent on itself in practice (episodes where the leads visit a bar to look for clues, and later wave a gun around recklessly, feel pretty forced and contrived). A wispy subplot involving the mothers of the four children searching for them made me wonder if this was in fact a film for nervous parents themselves, a stilted rumination on how childhood experiences have changed and stayed the same, and the worry parents have about their children growing up.
Maybe it’s attempting to be all of these things, in which case it winds up as a feature-length attempt, succeeding at very little. The cinematography is adept and the atmosphere on display feels correct given the title. Occasionally there are moments that suggest the authentic experience of being a certain age, running around the woods with your friends, and the melancholy feeling that comes with growth and change. A few scenes do manage to charm and entertain, such as the aforementioned wry exchange with Mullaly. Unfortunately, none of it is enough to recommend Summering, one of the most unfocused films of the year, and perhaps one of the least satisfying.
By the time a certain Taylor Swift song begins playing as the credits role, there is no sense of catharsis or growth, no feeling that this is a whole journey we’ve been taken on as an audience. Questions have been raised, anxieties have been expressed, and events have taken place, but the film never ties together or feels complete. I still continue to root for James Ponsoldt to make intriguing or profound films once again; maybe he needs a more focused screenwriter next time.
Summering is out now in theaters. Watch the trailer below.