Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Not Yet Rated, 1 hour and 27 minutes
Directed by: James Ponsoldt
Starring: Lia Barnett, Madalen Mills, Sanai Victoria, Eden Grace Redfield, Lake Bell, Megan Mullally
Filmmaker James Ponsoldt captures the evocative nature of girlhood and growing pains with SUMMERING. This earnest, gentle coming-of-age drama about a group of young female friends facing the last weekend of summer and their impending subsequent splintering borrows some inspiration from STAND BY ME, with the inclusion of a dead body, adventure-fueled motor and group dynamics. Yet it moves and breathes differently. Ponsoldt and co-screenwriter Benjamin Percy efficiently balance the sincere with the somber, the heartrending with the horror and the frank with the fantastical.
Soon-to-be middle schoolers Lola (Sanai Victoria), Dina (Madalen Mills), Mari (Eden Grace Redfield) and Daisy (Lia Barnett) are a tight-knit group of friends, spending carefree, sunlit days bouncing around and roaming the neighborhood. But just as the quartet are paying respects to their dizzying youthful happiness, bringing trinkets and talismans to their secret shrine deep in the wilderness, they discover the dead body of a mysterious man. He’s dressed in a suit, with no identification on him. They’re also unsure whether or not he committed suicide. After some deliberation as to whether or not to call the cops, the inquisitive, introspective gaggle of gals decides to uncover his identity – as one last hurrah. Their detective case leads them down some shady paths as they attempt to restore his humanity and rectify their own personal issues.
Ponsoldt and Percy keep the tweens’ struggles and special skillsets cohesive and clean-lined. Dina is a quick-thinking ace student dealing with pressure at home to keep up that reputation. Lola’s also a sponge for knowledge, but a bit sheltered by her mom. Mari is a gregarious smooth-talker, exhausted by familial commitments put upon by her mom (Megan Mullally). Still, it’s Daisy who’s given the lion’s share of the picture’s conflict. She’s worried about her surrogate family – her squad – breaking apart because she’s already gone through her real family fracturing after her father abandoned her and her shattered mom (Lake Bell). While the gang’s storylines and arcs could use a bit more development and closure, the efficient clip at which the film is paced is appreciated. The filmmakers guide the story and characters with an open-heartedness, incorporating dashes of magical realism into the equation to connote the feeling of youthful naiveté.
The young cast is terrific, nimbly negotiating their characters’ strengths and vulnerabilities. Though some of the material is a tad unwieldy and rough around the edges, their performances smooth it out enough to where the emotional drive greases the wheels. Victoria infuses her character with wit and wisdom. Mills is a compelling, assured performer, handling the light and heavy tones capably. Redfield brings a lovely charisma and buoyancy when leaning into the levity, especially when holding her own against Mullally. Barnett is full of pathos, bringing a soulful depth and introspection to her character’s aching burden.
Perhaps what resonates the loudest are the poignant insights and sentiments delicately folded into the subtext. Frequently, the girls discover magic and power in their unwavering bond. When they work together as a team, they can do everything from taking flight to solving crime and restoring a marginalized man’s soul/ humanity even in death. And when there’s that network of support, there’s a comforting sense of hope that everything is going to be okay. Navigating the worrisome challenges of middle school and puberty should be a cakewalk for these lil’ warrior women.
Grade: 4 out of 5
SUMMERING premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on January 21. It will be released by Bleecker Street films in the Summer.