There’s a moment within the first few minutes of Summering — James Ponsoldt’s delicate, affectionate tribute to the wonder years (or more specifically, the seasonal wonder months) between childhood’s end and teenage riots — that captures the blurred, giddy adrenaline rush of youth in full bloom. Four girls are goofing around, hiding in bathtubs and scaring each other with masks. Someone’s mom shoos them all out of the house. And then the quartet begins to sprint across a front lawn in slow motion, screaming and giggling as they head straight toward an active sprinkler, framed by the refracting arc of a water-mist rainbow. It’s such an arresting image, so full of life and joy that you can feel yourself gasp as you watch it. When the sequence then cuts to a view of them running from the side, one of the girls begins doing cartwheels across the screen. You’re immediately dropped into the world of these suburban tweens, and whisked back to that point in life when all you needed was a summer afternoon to while away, a reminder to be home by dusk in time for dinner, and your friends. It’s like watching an old, faded Kodachrome photograph reverse back into brightness and focus.
You get a handful of lyrical snippets like this, all of which the director and his cowriter Benjamin Percy liberally scatter throughout their coming-of-age story, and you’re more likely to walk away remembering those random bits over any other aspect of this artisanal YA drama. (It hits theaters August 12th.) Summering works better as a mood than it does a movie, succeeding in channeling a certain feeling of transition despite ambling, or occasionally stumbling though more traditional kids-flicks narrative beats. Ponsoldt has said that he wanted to make a film for young women that resembled the ones aimed at boys when he was growing up, and you can feel the trace influences of yesteryear’s preadolescent misadventures all over this, notably Stand By Me. If this never quite hits that high bar, it still gives you the sense that you’re glimpsing something far more real and carefully handcrafted than your typical Nickelodeon-style notion of how adults think kids act.
It helps that Ponsoldt has always been a filmmaker who’s great with actors — he was one of the first to see Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s post-scream-queen potential via Smashed (2012), and one of the only writer-directors to use Miles Teller to his full potential in The Spectacular Now (2013). And he’s assembled a cast of both young performers and older, well-established screen presences that all seem to understand what he’s going for with this loose tale of tween angst.
Each of these four girls are genuine besties-4-life, and each of them have something nagging at the periphery of the paradise they’re about to lose. Dina (Madalen Mills) seems a little shook by the adult world she keeps seeing in the “dead girl” network procedurals she secretly watches. Lola (Sanai Victoria) has to deal with a perpetually over-it older sister and distracted parents. That’s nothing compared to what Daisy (Lia Barnett) is going through with her mom (Lake Bell), a cop drinking through her grief over her husband walking out. And while Mari (Eden Grace Redfield) gets along great with her wisecracking mother (Megan Mullally), she’s a little worried that attending a different middle school than her pals will spell the end of their close-knit bond.
Still, these four have one last summer weekend before they’re back in classrooms on Monday, and they’re going to make the most of it with a pilgrimage to their friendship shrine of toys, stuffed animals, a photo-booth strip of pictures, etc. in the forest. That’s also where they find the body of a dead man in a suit, facedown on the ground. Mari wants to call the police. Dina thinks that they should figure out who he is and what happened to him on their own. Thus this makeshift Sisterhood of the Traveling Sleuth Hats begins to follow up on what little clues they have, which leads them to question a local bartender, break into their elementary school (which suddenly, sadly seems so small to them), and eventually try to contact the victim via a seance.
If you think that this mystery corpse may be a red herring — and that it’s really just an excuse for these youngsters to go on a journey that guides them from one stage of growing up to the next — your instincts might be correct. It’s partly a function of how so much of YA drama works, whether on the page or the screen, though it’s a shame that Summering doesn’t give as much loving care to its storytelling mechanics as it did its fraying-age-of-innocence vibe. Better to have the latter in abundance over the former than vice versa, of course. That doesn’t keep you from wishing that, say, the matriarch played by Sarah Cooper — she of the Trump lip-syncing videos — got as much character development as the other moms, or feel that the movie doesn’t end so much as come to abrupt stop before fading to black.
Yet what it does give you, in terms of the moments when these girls are merely talking to each other and expressing hopes, dreams, fears, and commiseration over the patriarchal pain in the ass that are skirts, feels unique. The mystery of who this man was never really mattered anyway, the movie hints. It’s the mystery of who these young women are, and who they might become as they have to navigate the world at the end of that sprinkler-rainbow, that truly counts.