For a certain subset of younger readers, bestselling author Sarah Dessen’s books — mostly sweet teen romances about nice kids working out their problems and falling in love in the process, typically set in and around Dessen’s adopted home state of North Carolina — are must-reads. For nearly three decades, Dessen has been churning out her novels to, if not always strong acclaim, at least good sales and a dedicated fanbase.
And yet, until Netflix picked up options for a trio of Dessen’s books back in 2019 (including “This Lullaby,” “Once and for All,” and the first book to make it to the screen, “Along for the Ride”), the author’s back catalog of inoffensive charmers scarcely got the movie treatment. Back in 2003, two of her books were turned into the Mandy Moore vehicle “How to Deal,” but it’s taken almost two decades for Dessen to get another crack at the screen. Netflix, which has given new life to the exact kind of fare Dessen writes — from the darling to the ridiculous — is an obvious home.
So, how’s the first one in this seemingly star-crossed partnership? Not bad! Bolstered by the dreamy, music-heavy direction of “To All the Boys” screenwriter Sofia Alvarez, here making her directorial debut, and a collection of adorable performances from its young leads, “Along for the Ride” doesn’t hit the giddy highs of Alvarez’s previous trilogy. Still, its genuine, gentle charm holds far more appeal than the icky “Kissing Booth” series. Has Netflix saved the YA romance? Not quite, but the streamer’s choices have surely made a strong case for its viability as low-key entertainment for teenage audiences and beyond.
Auden (Emma Pasarow, coming off a memorable arc in “Super Pumped”) isn’t your typical teenage girl — no, no, don’t roll your eyes at this, really — and she’s not thrilled about it either. Whipsmart and practically allergic to not speaking her mind, Auden has spent most of her youth being raised by her outspoken mom Victoria (Andie MacDowell), who endured a bitter divorce and then never quite got over it. Our intro to Victoria? Her loudly proclaiming to a group of pals that she’s never getting married again, and boy, do we believe her. Auden doesn’t know how to do kid stuff, she can barely relate to her peers, and with college just a few months off, she’s itching to grow. She’d like to be someone different, but even if that’s not possible, that doesn’t stop her from wanting to try.
The answer: a summer in the idyllic beach town of Colby (the film was made on location in North Carolina, including Wilmington and Carolina Beach, and the charming setting adds to its lazy, one-last-summer appeal) with her dad Robert (Dermot Mulroney, apparently baffled to be here), her newish stepmom Heidi (Kate Bosworth, fantastic in a role all about not jumping to conclusions about people), and their tiny new baby Thisbe. Despite the seemingly lofty goal of “being someone different,” Auden doesn’t have much of a plan for her summer, and Pasarow plays her as both attentive and nervous, eager and shut-off, an overall lovely approach to what could be a flat character.
Auden’s early days in Colby don’t go so well. A trip to a local hangout only results in a limp hook-up with a random townie (“All the honeys love the Jake,” he yelps when she pulls away), who just so happens to be the ex-boyfriend of the very popular Maggie (Laura Kariuki) who also just so happens to work at Heidi’s store with her two best pals, Esther and Leah (Samia Finnerty and Genevieve Hannelius, both delightful), and who takes an instant dislike to Auden. Oops. Things at home aren’t much better, as Robert seems to be falling back into old habits while Heidi doesn’t feel supported in her burgeoning motherhood.
No wonder Auden can’t sleep. When she takes to hanging out on the pier at night — reading, of course, as this is a girl named after W.H. Auden — she doesn’t expect to meet anyone. Certainly not the handsome, mysterious Eli (Belmont Cameli), who bikes up to and then promptly away from Auden for days (er, nights) on end. The film capitalizes on plenty of montages to express the routine of Auden’s life, and how it quickly comes to involve Eli; paired with Alvarez’s reliance on a stacked soundtrack of pop jams, the narrative techniques occasionally keep the film from digging deeper into emotions and actions, rather than telegraphing them.
Fellow night owl Eli soon becomes obsessed with an idea: He’ll help sheltered Auden experience all the “kid stuff” she’s missed out on. In Dessen’s world, such kid stuff is food fights and a little light trespassing, a sanitized view of teen life that feels like something out of another time, but allows her stories wide-ranging appeal.
Eli calls it “the quest,” and soon the duo are zipping through nighttime Colby, doing everything from visiting a “secret pie shop” (again, welcome to Dessen World) to playing mini-golf. But as Auden spends more time with Eli, she can’t help but open herself more, which includes finding the space for her beleaguered stepmom, making peace (and then real friends) with Maggie, Leah, and Esther, and maybe even setting up some boundaries for her brittle mom.
But is Eli really opening himself up to Auden? Soon, Auden will learn that he’s got a secret — a heartbreaker — that explains why he’s so damn mysterious and why he’s so interested in spending time with the one person he assumes doesn’t know about said heartbreaker. The twists and turns “Along for the Ride” take are predictable, easily talked through, and wholly relatable. It doesn’t surprise, but it does charm, and Pasarow and Cameli generate actual chemistry and heat as Auden and Eli along the way. “Along for the Ride” accomplishes the primary directive of all romances: You root for its core couple.
That’s not all, though, because while Alvarez can only do so much with an under-two-hour running time. The director and screenwriter also carves out enough space to give real dimension to a number of supporting characters, most notably Heidi (no, truly, Bosworth is wonderful here) and Maggie (the film’s subplot about everyone in Colby being bonkers for BMX might not make much sense, but it’s worth it to see the payoff when Maggie gets on a bike to show off her unexpected hobby). Auden wanted to become a different person, and while “Along for the Ride” isn’t exactly a different kind of YA feature, it makes the case for the enduring charm of proven quantities. Take it for a spin.
“Along for the Ride” starts streaming on Netflix on Friday, May 6.