I might be tempted to call writer/director James Ponsoldt’s new coming of age film about four young girls who discover the dead body of a man on the last summer days before starting middle school, Stand By She. Okay I will. Its actual title is Summering and it is a sweet and sincere attempt to give young girls the kind of edge-of-turning-teen story of a last summer of no worries with your friends that has mostly been reserved for boys in classic Hollywood films in the genre. With a screenplay Ponsoldt with co-writer Benjamin Percy was inspired to create coming out of the pandemic, and new questions about life presented to our youngest members of the planet, they land on a somewhat dark situation. Four carefree young girls come face to face with death, and some special bonding in this unusual entry into the Kids section of the Sundance Film Festival where it is premiering today. Ponsoldt wanted to make this one for his daughter, and maybe he says even a sister or mother or any female who didn’t have the kind of role models on screen boys did as he was growing up.
That certainly was the case with Stand By Me, Rob Reiner’s 1986 classic adaptation of Stephen King’s short story The Body about four young boys on the edge of their teens who go search of a missing friend’s body one summer day. Summering in bringing grown up issues to the forefront finds these four kids Daisy (Lia Barnett), Dina (Madalen Mills), Mari (Eden Grace Redfield), and Lola (Sanai Victoria) romping on a hike through the woods when they come upon a grown very dead man flat on his face. Later they contemplate perhaps it was a suicide, but they must decide what to do and that actually becomes taking matters into their own hands as these four Nancy Drews-in-training set about solving a mystery only they share at their insistence.
Ponsoldt isn’t afraid to add otherworldly mystical actions along the way because after all kids today weaned on Harry Potter expect magical moments, and that’s fine (one of the girls suddenly leaps high above the trees like a scene out of E.T.). Live action kids movies dealing with lofty ideas are in such short supply that you can cut some of the tonal inconsistencies here a bit of slack. It becomes fun as they get deeper into the night following intriguing trails toward uncovering the identity of the man, and the life he led. This ends up at a storage locker they break into (one of them even has a gun for God’s sake to shoot off the lock on the door) and find odd things like a tv set still on and the appearance that this is where he lived. You aren’t quite sure what is exactly real and what isn’t at given times, but it doesn’t matter.
Meanwhile all these girls have mothers who are worried about them and where they might be. It doesn’t make them so worried that they can’t all get together, drink some wine, and talk about what they have missed in their own lives. This aspect of the story runs on a parallel track with Lake Bell playing a cop no less named Laura, expert Trump mimic Sarah Cooper as Karna, Ashley Madekwe as Joy, and Megan Mullally still getting laughs as Stacie. The dramatic center of this comes to a head when Daisy gets an awkward visit from her estranged dad who shows up to retrieve some stuff in the house. Real life problems mix with the more fantastical imaginings of children here making Summering not just another mindless entertainment to keep your brood amused and apart from their cell phones for a couple of hours. There are things to talk about after the movie ends. And it doesn’t ever talk down to its intended audience. If anything the adults are the ones desperately in need of connecting with their inner kid. It would be nice if we were all Peter Pans and never had to grow up and face the big bad cruel world.
The young cast shines, my favorite being the bright light Mari played with great naturalism by Redfield. Barnett gets the bigger emotional moments and proves herself very capable. Ponsoldt, whose past films like The Spectacular Now, End Of The Tour, and Smashed has always shown a smart indie sensibility and humanist touch lending the same weight to a very different kind of film and largely succeeding in just getting it made in the first place. P. Jennifer Dana and Peter Block join him as producers of the Stage 6/ Bleecker Street production