Review: 'Summering' Has a Wintery Feel

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday August 12, 2022


Four pre-teens on the verge of adolescence find a body in the woods. This sparks an adventure that will resonate long into adulthood.

We're not talking about Rob Reiner's 1986 movie "Stand by Me," but rather the James Ponsoldt-written and -directed film "Summering," in which four eleven-year-old girls (rather than a quartet of 12-year-old boys) are the ones wandering the woods and, not incidentally, making a transition out of childhood.

General similarities notwithstanding, the two films have hardly anything in common. Daisy (Lia Barnett), Dina (Madalin Mills), Lola (Sanai Victoria), and Mari (Eden Grace Redfield) are very much Gez Z kids, a far cry from the 1950s and that decade's notions of young adulthood; moreover, where "Stand by Me" was very much a film about rites of passage —†the gaining of life qualities like wisdom and experience — "Summering" is a long, bittersweet dirge for what's lost: Time lapsed, familiar things sliding away. This is the end of summer; colder months... years, decades... lie ahead, as these four best friends are faced with the prospect of starting middle school and being split up after one last weekend.

But what a weekend! After paying a visit to a tree they have more or less turned into a shrine to girlhood (adorned with dolls, sunglasses, toys, and whatnot), the friends make a gruesome discovery: The body of a man who, they deduce, threw himself to his death from the bridge overhead. Deciding against going to the cops or to their parents — the two things are the same in the case of Daisy, who's mother is a cop (and a passed-out drunk on her off hours) — and fueled by endless episodes of crime procedurals on television, the girls decide to figure out who the dead man is and what happened to him.

Their sleuthing leads to a bar, and then a self-storage locker. They determine the man's identity, and come to a place where they can make reasonable deductions about his life and circumstances, but the mystery of the body isn't what drives this film. Rather, there's a process of self-discovery, and of coming into their own, that has to happen. For one girl, it's a matter of her cell phone being destroyed: A symbolic severing of the apron strings that tie her to her over-concerned mother. For another, it's a moment of reckoning... which arrives in the middle of a seance intended to put them into contact with the dead man, no less — that finally allows for some quality mother-daughter bonding.

In a way, that blend of breaking away and bonding more closely to their mothers is a central part of this movie, though it's a theme that's not fully explored. (There's also a nice, if narratively convenient, thread about one girl's relationship with her older sister.) It doesn't help that none of the actors actually seem to be 11 years old; only Maru seems remotely that young, while the others seem to be seven or eight years too old for their parts.

As for men... well, they scarcely exist in this universe. Even the dead guy is glimpsed out of focus, or in jump scares borrowed from horror movies that suggest his supernatural presence —†a genre-hopping motif that pops up a few times and leads nowhere. Male siblings are absent, and fathers don't seem to play much of a part; only one appears on screen, just long enough to confirm that he's a disappointment, and the one dad we know for sure lives at home with his family is fleetingly referenced in a marginal capacity as one of the moms, calling out to him during his post-prandial bathroom visit, admonishes him to be sure and light a deodorizing candle.

Most of the film's humor hovers at about that level, though one perfectly-timed instance of cell phone's incineration briefly raises the cleverness quotient. Otherwise, the movie has a sluggish, low-energy quality, seemingly avoiding too much pep or sizzle, and sticking to a downbeat mood with constant references to death (the corpse is only the embodiment, so to speak, of the movie's obsession with morality) and, despite the summery setting, bending inexorably toward the autumnal (one nicely executed moment of CGI magic shows a painted tree, with hand-prints for leaves, becoming denuded thanks, evidently, to the cold winds of coming winter). At a certain point it's hard not to roll your eyes; after all, these girls are going to middle school, not an elder care facility.

Such gloomy stuff does make for poignant storytelling, of course, if handled correctly, but "Summering" gets caught in-between places. That in itself could have been an internally consistent witticism (since the girls, in their quest to make contact with, or at least make sense of, the dead man seek out just such nether spaces, the better to communicate with "the other side"), but the film falters and falls between the cracks.

"Summering" plays in theaters starting Aug. 12.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.