Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Bleecker Street releases the film in theaters on Friday, August 12.
“I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve,” the narrator of Rob Reiner’s classic ‘80s coming-of-age drama “Stand by Me,” iconically said. It’s a raw and honest musing, conjuring a nostalgic longing for bygone innocence of youth. It’s also a feeling that James Ponsoldt aims to replicate in “Summering,” a pallid homage that fixes its sights on the close-knit friendship of four tween girls in suburbia. But in dragging the “Stand by Me” story into a modern era of cell phones and helicopter moms, the movie becomes a misfire that’s as stilted as it is inert.
Taking place during the waning days of summer vacation, “Summering” follows a charming foursome: the dejected Daisy (Lia Barnett), the razor-sharp Dina (Madalen Mills), the priggish Mari (Eden Grace Redfield), and the woo-woo Lola (Sanai Victoria). The movie opens with the besties dashing outdoors where, in labored slow-motion, they leap through residential yards, giggle on seesaws, and frolic through lens-flare-flecked woods. From stiff expository dialogue, we learn that it’s the friends’ final week before they start middle school, and they’re headed toward their sacred place: a small tree they’ve decorated with childhood artifacts. They call it Terabithia. (The fact that four spunky and imaginative girls would opt to copy a book’s fantasy world name rather than dreaming up an original marks the first of many dubious screenwriting decisions.)
The whole sequence feels as authentic to youthful experience as an ad for life insurance. But just as you’re starting to gag on the tweeness of it all, the girls stumble upon a dead body. Lying prostrate and half-covered in weeds, the man seems to have died jumping — or being pushed — from a bridge high above. Dina, the leader of the girl pack, quickly convinces her friends not to call 911 or their moms. “I mean, you know our moms. They’ll think we’re, like, traumatized. First the cops will ask a million questions. Then the moms will ask us a million questions,” she reasons.
Her logic is a bit of a head-scratcher, but they’re kids; we’ll let it slide. Instead of reporting the body, the girls make a pact to figure out the guy’s identity themselves. The rest of the movie unfolds as a kind of provincial detective mission, with the youngsters trekking through the town center on their quest. Dina is a lover of “CSI,” and her amateur skills become crucial in the girls’ haphazard hunt for information.
But the oddest decision in the screenplay, which was co-written by Ponsoldt and Benjamin Percy, turns out not to be about the girls at all, but about their mothers. As it gets later in the day and the girls’ moms — dads are nowhere to be found — grow concerned over their daughters’ whereabouts, they gather together to strategize. Mari’s mom Stacie (Megan Mullally) is a textbook helicopter parent, with a tracking device on Mari’s cell phone and an app to follow her digital footprint. Lola’s mom Joy (Ashley Madekwe) is similarly overbearing, pressuring her daughter to be a brainy high achiever.
The other two are less oppressive, and Dina’s mom Laura (Lake Bell) is actually coded as too lax: She’s an alcoholic policewoman prone to falling asleep in the living room with whiskey in her lap. The actors do their best, but each of them still ends up feeling more like a cluster of tropes than a character.
It seems that Ponsoldt, directing with a sort of cloying but slipshod approach, would like the movie to impart the message that The Kids Are Alright and modern moms could stand to chillax a little. But the girls’ story grows so random and far-fetched — one of them ends up toting a loaded gun in her backpack, a move that seems particularly unlikely in an era when Gen Z-ers undergo active shooter drills at school — that by the end, we end up actually wanting the moms to discipline them.
Maybe with more natural writing, less awkward staging, or a consistent mood, the girl group would feel like a version of the “Stranger Things” crew: kids who we root for no matter their missteps. As is, “Summering” is too scattered and silly for us to really care.
“Summering” premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Bleecker Street will release it later this year.