Stand by Me is such a clear inspiration for Summering that Stephen King deserves a story credit. This drama gender-swaps the formula of the 1986 Rob Reiner film, but it subtracts all elements that make coming-of-age films great. Summering features almost no men on screen in notable parts — with the exceptions of a dead body and a deadbeat dad — but the women and girls don’t feel alive or present either. Most of its above-the-line credits go to men, and the script from Benjamin Percy and director James Ponsoldt lacks specificity about these kids and their experiences. In Summering, there’s nothing that sets these four best friends (because it’s always four best friends) apart from each other, either in the screenplay or in the performances by the young actors. They never feel like four distinct, real tween girls, and the film fails to grasp what makes the best movies in its subgenre work across age groups.
Daisy (Lia Barnett), Dina (Madalen Mills), Mari (Eden Grace Redfield), and Lola (Sanai Victoria) are apparently four separate characters, but who can tell, really? The 11-year-olds are on the cusp of middle school, and they’re eager to spend their last week of summer together. However, a surprising discovery near the woody haven they’ve called “Terabithia” at once brings them closer to each other and farther from childhood innocence. They keep the secret of what they’ve found from their parents, determined to solve the mystery on their own and wring out their last moments together before they start at different schools.
These supposedly central characters are distinguished less by their own personalities and more by their mothers’ likes and emotions. Part of the fun of these types of movies for kids— Stand by Me, The Goonies, Now and Then — is picking whom you most identify with, but there’s little for young audiences to latch on to, other than which kid has the free-spirited arty mom (Sarah Cooper), the overprotective mom (Megan Mullally), the emotionally distant mom (Lake Bell), or the smart-but-CSI-loving mom (Ashley Madekwe). At 11, these girls are at the age where they should be starting to establish who they are apart from their parents, but Summering only allows them to be extensions of their mothers when it allows them to be anything at all.
Similarly, the film itself doesn’t know what kind of movie it wants to be or who it’s for, leaving Summering somewhere in the insipid middle ground. Fantasy and horror elements creep in along the edges, but it never fully coheres, with each of these interludes feeling like they’re from another film entirely. The film lacks definition; it’s neither funny nor thrilling, charming nor scary, nostalgic nor of the moment. It’s bland, featureless, and somehow far too long at less than 90 minutes.
Before his disastrous adaptation of The Circle, Ponsoldt was known for tender, character-driven films. The End of the Tour and The Spectacular Now are anchored by strong acting, emotional depth, and capable filmmaking. Summering feels like it was made by someone else entirely, with its fumbling of its big ideas, as well as its amateur execution in both its central performances and its awkward, ill-timed editing. This marks another step backward for the director, rather than the return to form that was its likely intent. In a move that feels reminiscent of his earlier work, Ponsoldt attempts to deal in darker, deeper themes, refusing to take the anodyne route that most kids and family movies do this century. Yet while Summering centers suicide, it merely glances at the issue, leaving more questions than answers for both its characters and its audience, which doesn’t seem like the lesson it intends to impart.
With its rare focus on girls’ friendship and growing up, Summering has good intentions but that never actually makes it a good movie. Girls are owed their own Stand by Me, but they deserve so much better than this.
“Summering” is in theaters Friday.