A Dearth of Female Coming-of-Age Stories Led Director James Ponsoldt to Make ‘Summering’

Sundance film "Summering" deals with death, religion, homelessness, and other big social issues. The writer-director and his cast discussed it in the IndieWire Studio, presented by Adobe.

In the great tradition of works that track young characters’ coming of age after a brush with death and confrontation with hard-to-swallow social issues, “Stand by Me” comes to mind. But like so for many movies in that genre, one is left with a question: Where are the girls?

That was one of the realizations that led James Ponsoldt to make “Summering,” which recently premiered in Sundance’s Kids section. The film follows four girls — played by Lia Barnett, Madalen Mills, Eden Grace Redfield, and Sanai Victoria as they ready to enter middle school. The girls spend time in the woods using their imaginations in a place they call Terabithia — in a nod to the classic children’s novel beloved as it is controversial for its frankness in dealing with death — where they make their own harrowing discovery that forces them to deal with the realities of the adult world, like death, suicide, homelessness, and parents’ shortcomings.

Ponsoldt discussed the film in an interview in the IndieWire Studio, Presented by Adobe, in a video you can watch above. He was joined by Lake Bell, Sarah Cooper, Ashley Madekwe, and Megan Mullally, who play the girls’ mothers.

“I have three young kids and I think a lot of it was born out of conversations I was having with all of them, but especially my daughter,” Ponsoldt said of his inspiration for the film, which he co-wrote with Benjamin Percy. “As I was looking for movies to show her and talking about TV shows and books I read when I was a kid, I rewound in my memory and realized when I was a kid, stories I had that were either coming-of-age stories or stories about first brushes with mortality and death — there were quite a few of them, and they always had male protagonists.

Though his work on the script started before the pandemic, Ponsoldt said our collective anxiety during this time period helped the story create even more meaning as a kind of balm for kids and parents confronting the tough parts of life.

“So much of this film is a version of a conversation that I’ve had with my kids, and my wife has had, that my co-writer Ben Percy has had with his daughter, I think we’re all having with each other,” he said. “Is it going to be OK, is it going to return to normal, whatever that means, I think we’re all wondering that.”

While “Summering” is cemented in the experience of its young protagonists, their families play a huge role in how the girls navigate the film’s conflict. One family is Christian, another has their own esoteric spiritual practices. One girl make sense of the world through science, or at least the version of science she’s seen on shows like “CSI.” And for the family led by Bell’s character, alcoholism, single parenthood, and abandonment are all struggles.

Bell said the way Ponsoldt’s film addresses such challenging topics was a huge draw for her when she signed on to the project, especially because her own daughter is facing health challenges of her own.

“She’s thinking about big things at 7 years old. So the idea of thinking about and traversing through complicated adult type subjects when you’re young, there is a dearth of that kind of reflected in movies for family. That was a big draw for me,” Bell said.

And that’s the kind of project one can’t expect from a studio film.

“It’s refreshing and I love in general this idea that we can open up the world of independent film to younger audiences and allowing them to ingest these flavors and start to build good taste,” Bell said.

Presenting sponsor Adobe — with a mission to enable creativity for all — is committed to supporting, elevating and amplifying underrepresented creators, so the world can see, learn and benefit from diverse perspectives. Learn more at Adobe.com Diverse Voices. The upcoming 2022 festival marks the fifth consecutive year IndieWire and Adobe have joined forces for the IndieWire Studio at Sundance.

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