Summeringis part mystery, part kid’s movie, and all mess. Writer-director James Ponsoldt (The Circle) makes one of the year's shortest features feel like a slog. The performances miss the mark from start to finish and, aside from the opening shot, there is nothing special about the set production or cinematography. On paper, the film appears to be a standard indie dramedy within the framework of an Amblin adventure flick. And at points, Summering feels like a vibe movie built on tone and feeling rather than narrative structure. The final product is a film that can’t decide what it wants to be.
Dina (Madalen Mills), Daisy (Lia Barnett), Mari (Eden Grace Redfield), and Lola (Sanai Victoria) are totally enveloped in the transition between elementary school and middle school. The girls are hell-bent on enjoying the last summer of innocence before their lives and their world change forever. And their world does change when they stumble across a corpse in the woods. Mari wants to call the cops, Daisy is indifferent and Dina and Lola want to know more before they do anything else. The girls agree to investigate the man's death and see what clues they can find around town. Before long, they realize the journey is more important than the destination and are bonded forever.
Audiences might think Ponsoldt jumped onto the scene with The Spectacular Now. However, his feature-length debut was the well-received 2006 drama, Off The Black, a gritty Nick Nolte-led story of a man who wants his son to pose as him at a school union. Both films capture the disillusionment of youth in very different, but effective ways. Ponsoldt has a knack for framing youth as the fleeting time it is, without ever needing to spell it out. Even in films like The End Of The Tour, the director finds narrative devices to engage audiences in what time spent and time lost can represent to someone throughout their life. Sadly, Summering is the most literal and dullest version of Ponsoldt’s go-to move and the Sundance selection fails at every turn.
Ponsoldt co-wrote the script with Benjamin Percy (Old Man Star-Lord), and the two present a story that attempts to be several kinds of films and succeeds at being none of them. The uneven drama of the film is a byproduct of how scattershot the genre and tone are. Summering isn’t funny, heartfelt, scary, or introspective; yet, it wants to be all of these things at once. The opening scene of the film is surprisingly promising and features a lovely slow-motion tracking shot that is overflowing with color. Then a confusing and generic voice-over begins to muddle the entirety of the film.
The performances are the kiss of death for Summering. Already weighed down by an abysmal script, asking four child actors to save the story is a tall task. The adult actors aren’t much help either, save for a reliable turn by Lake Bell (How To Make It In America). Audiences might recognize Madalen Mills from Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Story, Netflix’s holiday musical, but both she and the rest of her young co-stars deliver consistently flat dialogue. The film is mostly focused on the children. When it isn’t, their moms get the remainder of screentime and are charming, but never great. None of the performances stand out.
Summering blunders through every act, changing its pace and tone seemingly on a whim. Though Ponsoldt has The Spectacular Now and The End Of The Tour in his pocket, Summering falls short of even his perceived failures, like The Circle. The script lacks any sort of focus and the cinematography, while graceful at times, does not compensate for the film's shortcomings. With no other part of the filmmaking process holding them up, the performers are doomed from the start. Summering is a slow and ultimately boring mystery that does little to portray youth in a meaningful way.
Summering is in theaters Friday, August 12. The film is 97 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for some thematic material.