Sundance Review: James Ponsoldt’s ‘Summering’ is an adventurously fanciful but cold tale of childhood [Grade: C]
It begins with a scene akin to a horror film when the protagonist faces the worst nemesis. Three girls are sitting in a bathtub huddled behind a shower curtain as a large shadow draws closer, a hand reaches out and their cover is ripped away to reveal that this is just a game of hide-and-seek between four eleven-year-olds. Breaking free but not venturing far from the imaginary world the girls inhabit, James Ponsoldt’s film Summering begins as a coming-of-age movie reminiscent of Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me. The film tries to develop into a fantastical rumination of girlhood anxieties, dealing with heavier themes, but ultimately falls short.
James Ponsoldt has cemented himself as a Sundance staple in previous years with The End of the Tour and The Spectacular Now. Ponsoldt’s latest work, Summering, sees the writer-director fashioning a pre-adolescent drama from the perspectives of four girls. The girls are bargaining with their parents to spend every second of the last weekend before starting separate middle schools together. The sun is setting on the innocence of their youth and they know it.
Daisy (Lisa Barnett), Mari (Eden Grace Redfield), Lola (Sanai Victoria) and Dina (Madalen Mills) are all approaching teendom but, for now, remain tethered to childhood with their venturesome wonder. With the camera floating by the girl gang’s side like a drifting balloon, the adventurous quartet marches through a forest to their usual hangout spot. In the centre, a leafless tree stands with bare branches reaching in every direction decorated with colourful trinkets of their friendship. This weekend, however, things are different. A few years away from their secret spot Daisy finds the body of a man lying face down on the ground in a full suit.
After some debate over the next choice of action, the girls decide against calling their parents and instead take it upon themselves (guided by their memories of daytime crime shows) to investigate who the man is, was, and how he died. The mystery kickstarts a shouldering of responsibility that is well beyond these eleven-year-olds’ years. Dignifying the emotions of these young women and their conundrums is where Ponsoldt excels. Listening to their discussions surrounding the patriarchal foundation of their school’s clothing policy and their navigation of maturity, Summering renders the thoughts and opinions of pre-teenage years worthy of attention.
However, this is also where the film stumbles with the fact there is no stumbling: the dialogue between the children is too clean. There’s a charm in the messiness of expression, to try and articulate feelings and thoughts inarticulately, that is absent from Summering. When it’s just the four of the young actors, with no adults to lean on or react off, the dialogue feels rehearsed and a bit stilted.
Nevertheless, these pre-teen characters are at this special age where they’re not bothered about dirt under their fingernails but hyper-aware of the adult world around them. “Sometimes adults know things but don’t tell us” mutters Mari. A truth spoken so softly the intensity of her words could easily be missed in an otherwise busy script. Like the girls are on the cusp of a new stage in life, Summering is on the edge of turning a coming-of-age movie into a full-on drama; however, the film avoids ever really plotting out these darker themes. Somehow, almost impressively, the discovery of the dead body manages not to become too central to the girls’ weekend – they chase clues but get distracted with their quarrels, thoughts and expectations of the future.
Dreamy cinematography by Greta Zozula captures the flourishes of life at this pivotal age where rainbows in the garden sprinklers are the addition to an airy and melodic soundtrack. Jean shorts and pop-tarts, reality meets the fanciful and yet Summering feels like its own identity is yet to be decided. The film is in a tonal debate with itself and with parents on the peripherals, there is no one to mediate the unruly conversation.
The sentimentality Ponsoldt evokes results in an empty gesture of nostalgia. The timelessness of friendship in youth is the magic thread running through Summering that just isn’t strong enough to properly weave this movie together neatly but with an outro melody that is best left as a surprise, Summering concludes with a good final note.
This review is from the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Image courtesy of Sundance Institute.