I remember when I was a younger man in the dating world. I was dating this one young woman, an incredibly attractive nurse who was significantly out of my league. It was one of those relationships where you simply knew it was going to end eventually, though I'd decided I was going to surrender myself to it for as long as I possibly could. One night, in particular, we had an absolutely perfect and inspired date. I'd planned everything perfectly and she was completely enthralled by the entire night.
It was the first time I began to think to myself "Maybe?"
Of course, what happened? I tried to recreate that perfection. One spontaneous and inspired night was followed by my own feeble attempts to somehow make lightning strike twice. I failed, of course, because what had previously been sincere and genuine and more than a little goofy began to come off as insincere, manipulative, and far too calculated.
I look back and I just think to myself "Ugh." I have never been great at the dating thing, but this was absolutely one of my low points.
I thought about this relationship a lot while watching co-writer/director James Ponsoldt's latest film, the Bleecker Street release Summering. A film Ponsoldt has acknowledged is meant to honor and respect his own daughter and the other women in his life, Summering instead only begins to scratch the surface of the young, particularly tween, female experience precisely because, I'll dare say it, it's both written and directed from the male lens. While there's little denying that Summering is a well-meaning and kinder/gentler film, it's still a film that comes off as mansplaining what it means to be a tween female on the cusp of middle school and a different phase of what it means to grow up female.
Don't worry. It's not lost on me that I am also a male film journalist making this observation.
Summering tries hard, too hard, and that effort far too often radiates a manipulative emotional spirit rather than an authentic one. There were times when I felt the spirit of Ponsoldt's near-masterpiece The Spectacular Now lingering within the frame alongside Summering and that presence grew frustrating as it often felt like Ponsoldt was working overtime to return to the place where he would be called one of the finest of the up-and-coming filmmakers. While there's no doubt he continues to be a mighty fine filmmaker, Summering is a lesser Ponsoldt experience that lacks the spirit, insight, and relational qualities of Ponsoldt's best efforts.
It would be nearly impossible to watch Summering without reflecting upon its cinematic, and vastly superior, cinematic cousin Stand By Me. However, much like Stand By Me will always and forever be considered one of Reiner's best it's practically undeniable that Summering falls much closer to late-career Reiner misfires like Flipped (though on an interesting side note, Reiner once declared in an interview with The Independent Critic that Flipped is his own favorite film of his and he considers the film tremendously misjudged).
Summering centers around four girls - Dina (Madalen Mills), Lola (Sanai Victoria), Daisy (Lia Barnett), and Mari (Eden Grace Redfield) - on the last weekend of summer before they enter middle school and face the potential fractures of friendship and familiarity. Determined to get all they can out of this final weekend, they return to one of their most visited haunts and make a discovery that will bring to light their fears, anxiety, issues at home, and uncertainty about the future.
While it might be too much of a giveaway, at times Summering feels like a weird mishmash of River's Edge with Nancy Drew as these girls immerse themselves in a dark mystery that never feels natural and often feels like it belongs in a different film. While life can certainly give us these dark mysteries, in this case it feels like an unnecessary distraction that causes tonal chaos within a film already struggling with tone. It doesn't help, of course, that despite their best efforts this leading quartet struggles to handle the complexities of Ponsoldt's script written alongside Benjamin Percy. That may be, I'd project, because Ponsoldt and Percy don't capture anything resembling an authentic female voice.
It's weird when a film is centered around its young cast yet it's the adults who really shine. Such is the case with Lake Bell's few but impressive moments as a boozing cop and Megan Mullaly's Stacie, a different sort of role for Mullaly and one in which she's impressive.
Greta Zozula's lensing nicely captures the film's rural Utah locale in ways both mysterious and comforting. Sofia Hultquist's original score has the same impact, both providing further evidence that the film desperately needed a stronger female voice guiding its creative direction.
Amidst all of my concerns about Summering, I have one other confession.
I still enjoyed it.
While Summering is tonally uneven and seemingly goes a million different directions, there's something about remarkably endearing and honest about the film's quieter moments. It's in these quieter moments where these girls really shine, Sanai Victoria most impressively yet all seemingly in touch with the transitional years as one wonders about the longevity of friendships and the difficulty of a layered, complex world they are just beginning to understand. Innocence isn't so much going away quiet yet, though reality is starting to set in. Summering is also, in mostly subtle ways, influenced by the ways in which a global pandemic have influenced daily life.
In essence, Summering is an imperfect film about an imperfect life.
I wanted a better film, a more convincing and cohesive film. But, life is what it is and I got this film. Cinematic warts intact, I still found myself enjoying these characters even when I didn't completely buy these relationships. I still found myself caring about their stories and their life experiences. In fact, even as I write this review they're all still vividly playing out in my mind.
A lesser James Ponsoldt film is still a James Ponsoldt film. Flawed yet intriguing, Summering may not be The Spectacular Now though it's also, rather thankfully, not The Circle. It's somewhere in-between and it's within those in-between spaces that life often plays out.
This labor of love from James Ponsoldt has just enough love to make it worth a view.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic