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Review: Summering – “Best when it’s really just following the four girls and their friendship”

August:  I recently saw it described online as the ‘Sunday of summer’.  And yes, as a kid I remember it being the ‘beginning of the end.’  The Canadian National Exhibition starts in mid-August every year in my hometown of Toronto and it was always the event that signalled to me that the beginning of the school year was upon me.  Summer, as one character describes in director James Ponsoldt’s newest feature, Summering, is ‘where everything feels alive and anything’s possible.’  But August, that’s when reality sets in.  It is however the perfect month for the release of this film, whose main characters, a quartet of young girls, are navigating that last weekend of ‘freedom’ before they begin middle school.

Co-written by Ponsoldt and Benjamin Percy, Summering follows Daisy (Lia Barnett), Dina (Maldalen Mills), Mari (Eden Grace Redfield) and Lola (Sanai Victoria) who have been friends since starting elementary school together.  Their close relationship is a dependable place for each girl who is dealing with their own anxieties about starting at a new school.  It is especially so for Daisy who is internally reeling over the end of her parents marriage and the fact that her mother (Lake Bell) is often turning to a bottle to deal with things.  But each of the girls has a completely different home life, different stressors, different relationships with their mothers.  This last weekend is the time to escape, and to solidify their bond, especially with Mari heading to a different school.

The girls set off as they seemingly always do, making their way to their friendship tree, a visual representation of their relationship with mementos hanging from its small branches, and meandering through the woods while affably talking.  That is, until they find the dead body of a man.  Fearing the inevitable interference of their parents and the police on their time together, they decide against calling either, instead embarking to discover who this man is.  But as they start playing detective, their investigation takes them to places that force them rapidly closer to adulthood.

Summering, which had its premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, is the first film Ponsoldt has directed since the 2017 film The Circle, starring Tom Hanks and Emma Watson.  That misfire (it claims only 16% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and made only $20 million domestically at the box office) came from a director that had a lot of acclaim for his 2013 film The Spectacular Now.  Summering feels more like a return to that coming-of-age storytelling, shaking off the bigger budget sci-fi fare, but without quite the emotional impact.  Still, his love for this film, and talent as a filmmaker comes through in Summering’s execution.

Comparisons to 1986’s Stand By Me are inevitable and deserved with writer Percy aiming to somewhat recreate for his daughter a modern version and feel of the classic childhood films he enjoyed (like Goonies and The Outsiders) with girls as the protagonists.  It’s certainly a noble ambition, yet the final product feels a little muddled.  It doesn’t really know if it wants to be that dramatic coming-of-age tale, a lighter comedy, or more of a horror film.  When the girls start to imagine the dead man’s face everywhere, creating jump scares and almost supernatural elements, it feels out of place.  It doesn’t seem to fit the overall theme, which starts so promisingly in capturing the magic and possibility of those last moments of summer.   There are too many thematic elements that don’t get properly developed.  

Summering is best when it’s really just following the four girls and their friendship.  I would have happily watched them wander through their small town, eavesdropping on their conversations about their lives, seeing discussions that I certainly never got on screen when I was their age.  These moments, as well as some of the scenes involving the girls and their mothers (Redfield alongside her on-screen parent Megan Mullaly stand out) are the film’s strength.  Everything else just feels a little forced and overshadows some of the wonderful components that were Summering’s building blocks.  As the young narrator says in the film, “That’s how August feels; like the good part is fading,” and as I got further into Summering, I was left with the same impression. 

Summering is in North American theatres August 12th

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