Summering - James Ponstoldt, Bleecker Street
Credit: Bleecker Street
by Steven Warner Featured Film Horizon Line

Summering — James Ponsoldt

August 12, 2022

Summering is a clichéd and ludicrous attempt at the coming-of-age tale, both thematically and tonally inept.

It’s been nearly a decade since writer-director James Ponsoldt became a bit of an indie darling, churning out in quick succession the critically acclaimed features Smashed, The Spectacular Now, and The End of the Tour. That winning streak came to a crashing halt with 2017’s techno-thriller The Circle,  a big-budget swing for the fences that was so incoherent it made the similarly themed Men, Women, & Children feel practically profound in comparison. And so, Ponsoldt is back in 2022, finally attempting to break out of filmmaker jail with Summering, a no-budget indie that, in theory, looks like a return to form. Unfortunately, the final product proves as dunderheaded as his last feature, confirming that Ponsoldt is in the middle of a major slump, the kind that has killed greater and far more successful directors.

Summering certainly leans heavily into Ponsoldt’s love of coming-of-age tales, although this is the first where the protagonists are actually children, as opposed to stunted adults desperately trying to confront and overcome their personal demons and arrested developments. Judging from the evidence on-screen, it’s quite possible that Ponsoldt has heretofore avoided such material because he has no idea how real-life children act or speak, although what does one expect when you have two forty-something white guys — co-writer Benjamin Percy included — penning dialogue for a multicultural quartet of tween girls? Just to give you an idea of the pseudo-intellectual language on display, an excerpt from the film’s opening, as lead protagonist Daisy (Lia Barnett) describes in voiceover narration her thoughts on the joys of summer days: “Everything blooms or drifts or hums: the color of flowers, the taste of ice cream, my friends’ laughter. There is so much of everything. It feels like it’s spilling out everywhere, like I could drown in all the life around me.” Has anyone anywhere ever heard an 11-year-old pontificating on the delicacies of summer’s waning days in quite this manner? To prove that they are totally hip and down with the kids, the writers later give another of the girls the line, “We’re going to watch TV or Tik-Tok videos.” Talk about cringe.

Even removing the insane dialogue from the equation, which is a big ask, Summering is still an irredeemable mess, thematically inept and a tonal shitshow. As the film opens, our four leads — Daisy (Barnett), Dina (Madalen Mills), Mari (Eden Grace Redfield), and Lola (Sanai Victoria) — are bemoaning the end of summer, with middle school set to start in only a few short days. A walk to their favorite spot in the nearby woods yields a shocking discovery, as the girls come across the body of a deceased man. Instead of calling the police, the foursome decides to CSI this shit and try to figure out the man’s identity and life story. Daisy’s reasoning, while still quite unsound, makes the most sense, as her father recently disappeared and she believes that this man could have a family that craves the closure she never received. Also, her mother (Lake Bell) is a neglectful drunk, so there’s that on her plate. Meanwhile, Dina totally digs crime shows, while Lola has a New Age mom who she burns incense with. Mari is the only one against the idea, but fuck it, she loves spending time with her friends. And so Summering begins where Stand by Me ends, as the girls get their Scooby-Doo on and search for clues.

Every once in a while, the film suddenly decides it wants to be a horror film and has each of the girls encounter the terrifying specter of the dead man while thunder crashes, lights flicker, and doors violently shake. What the girls ultimately realize is that getting old sucks, and they should totally appreciate their carefree days, because once you become an adult you will wind up dead in a ravine or turn to the bottle after your spouse leaves you. That’s certainly not the kind of heartwarming message anyone wants to convey to kids, which is sure to leave viewers wondering who exactly Summering is even made for. It’s far too simplistic for adults, too cynical for kids, and too self-satisfied for all demographics. Ponsoldt gets a lot of shots of his four leads in slow motion, mindlessly frolicking in the gorgeous setting sun, as if such clichéd imagery is all it takes to craft a meaningful coming-of-age tale. As it turns out, we don’t appreciate our childhood until its gone — how profound. But if life is too short to let those halcyon days of youth slip by unappreciated, it’s definitely too short to waste your time on something as nothing as Summering, a film which truly epitomizes the dog days.