Producers: Peter Block and P. Jennifer Dana Director: James Ponsoldt Screenplay: James Ponsoldt and Benjamin Percy Cast: Lia Barnett, Lake Bell, Sarah Cooper, Ashley Madekwe, Madalen Mills, Megan Mullally, Eden Grace Redfield, Sanai Victoria, Dale McKeel and Willow Corner-Bettwieser Distributor: Bleecker Street
Echoes of “Stand By Me” reverberate in “Summering,” not to the new movie’s advantage. The weakest film yet from writer-director James Ponsoldt, whose string of interesting early efforts (“Off The Black,” “Smashed,” “The Spectacular Now,” “The End of the Tour”) was broken by his disappointing larger one, “The Circle” (2017), “Summering,” written in tandem with novelist and comic book writer Benjamin Percy, is a coming-of-age story that comes of stilted and artificial.
At the center of things are four eleven-year old best friends, Daisy (Lia Barnett), Dina (Madalen Mills), Mari (Eden Grace Redfield) and Lola (Sanai Victoria), spending their last summer days before starting middle school, and not all at the same one (Mari will be going to a Catholic alternative). They roam around town on bike and foot, sharing confidences in dialogue that rarely has a ring of authenticity, especially as clumsily delivered by the young actresses, with occasional bursts of bland narration from Daisy.
The most important of their regular stops is a tree below a bridge that they’ve festooned with trinkets representing what’s important to them—a haven they call Terabithia. But this time they find something has been added—the corpse of a man in a threadbare suit lies nearby. The girls argue about whether to call the police—an investigation would ruin their last weekend together, and their mothers would worry about the traumatic impact the discovery might have on them—so they decide to look into the matter themselves, following the tactics Daisy has learned from watching “C.S.I.”—one of the screenplay’s more unlikely touches.
Their search for the man’s identity learns them to break into their school to access the “dark web” on a computer, and to visit a bar where, it turns out, he regularly played an old video game. They eventually learn his name and where he was living, and go there to hold a séance to make contact with his spirit. (Another of them supposedly knows the ropes from watching “Ghost Hunters.”) That results in some slightly spooky moments but little enlightenment.
Meanwhile the girls’ mothers—Laura (Lake Bell), Joy (Ashley Madekwe), Stacie (Megan Mullally) and Karna (Sarah Cooper)—worry about their daughters, as well they might, since they’ve taken Laura’s gun (she’s a cop) and at one point use it. But the scenes of them talking with their daughters or to one another aren’t appreciably more revealing than the sequences centering on their daughters.
Of the fathers little is said, except for Daisy’s (Dale McKeel), who has disappeared recently, his absence going unexplained to his daughter, whose relationship to her overly busy mother has clearly been impacted by his departure. (He does show up, briefly, during the séance sequence, although it’s only as a sort of ghostly flashback during which he utters what is surely one of the most overused lines in movies today—“It’s complicated.”) The lack of male presence here is apparently meant to be a significant emotional element, but it’s an aspect of the script that isn’t so much explored as suggested. So is the ambiguity that infuses the plot—is it real, or is it allegory? (At one point it’s remarked by one of the girls that maybe the body isn’t actually there.)
“Summering” has a dappled, shimmering look, thanks primarily to Greta Zozula’s cinematography, and occasional touches of magical realism add a dreamy touch. But in its desire to capture the mixture of emotions children facing the uncertain passage into adolescence face, the storytelling becomes confused rather than telling. There are affecting moments in the film, but too many that seem recycled or opaque.