On a balmy Labor Day weekend, four best friends find a dead body in the woods, the discovery marking an end of innocence as adolescence beckons. If you think you’ve seen this one before, “Summering” makes no apology for the resemblance. Right down to a stolen pistol shoved in a backpack, James Ponsoldt’s unhurried, sun-kissed coming-of-age drama plays as an all-female homage to Rob Reiner’s “Stand By Me” — a reference that won’t mean much to the pre-teen girls at whom it’s aimed, but may make some of their parents a little misty-eyed. Yet nostalgia may be the strongest emotion engendered by this breeze-blown dandelion seed of a film, which nods to the bittersweet complexities of growing up and confronting adulthood, but never gets as far as fully dramatizing them.
As such, “Summering” is a pleasant enough watch for patient, thoughtful children and their elders alike, but something of a disappointment from writer-director James Ponsoldt — returning to his sweet spot of mild-mannered indie filmmaking after the misfire of 2017’s Tom Hanks-starring thriller “The Circle” and a subsequent recovery period in TV. In its best moments, his sixth feature fleetingly recalls the mellow, gently melancholic pleasures of Ponsoldt works like “The Spectacular Now” and “The End of the Tour,” though all too often, it feels like the youthful focus of his latest comes with a broader, flimsier approach to character and storytelling. That the film premiered in Sundance’s Kids sidebar rather than the higher-profile strands that made its director’s reputation is indicative of “Summering’s” limited crossover potential, with this Bleecker Street release likeliest to eventually find its young audience on streaming platforms.
For a few enchanted minutes at the outset, however, it appears that Ponsoldt has something rarer and more special: like Céline Sciamma’s “Petite Maman,” a film with an arthouse sensibility that can nonetheless speak directly to any children stumbling upon it. Its four young leads are introduced via an eerie, dreamily lit game of indoor hide-and-seek — previewing a series of less evocative jump scares strewn through the rest of the film — before they tumble forth into the great, bright suburban outdoors, shrieking and giggling, and set out on their last everyday adventure of the summer. Taking his time, Ponsoldt follows the quartet as they walk and talk their way into nearby woodlands, caressed by Greta Zozula’s twinkly, every-hour-is-magic lensing, while repeated cross-fades capture the authentically languid, arbitrary nature of their conversation.
The start of middle school is days away, and the girls’ heads are teeming with hopes, fears and ideas. Daisy (Lia Barnett) complains about her ordinary name, wondering if a new school presents a chance to reinvent herself with a new moniker; Mari (Eden Grace Redfield) is headed to a Catholic academy, and frets about the uniform she’ll have to wear. Spiritually inclined Lola (Sanai Victoria) and rigidly fact-oriented Dina (Madalen Mills) spar over their opposing worldviews, but beneath all this genial chatter, it’s not hard to hear the subtext of youthful anxiety. The girls gamely try to stay in the moment, but can’t help projecting a silent, shared worry that their friendship, like the warmly fading summer, is drawing to a close.
So far, so poignant. But once “Summering” ceases this ruminative scene-setting and concentrates on telling a story, all that delicate subtext switches to text, and a faintly Nickelodeon tone seeps into Ponsoldt and Benjamin Percy’s slender script. The theme of adulthood invading tender jeunesse is bluntly literalized when, upon arriving at their secret play spot (tellingly named “Terabithia”), the girls discover the lifeless body of an adult man, who seemingly jumped from a nearby bridge. While timid Mari’s impulse to call the police, her friends deter her. Their moms are over-protective enough as it is, they argue, so what effect will a trauma like this have on their future freedom?
If that’s a plausible line of tweener thinking, that’s also where the film’s credibility ends as the girls resolve to Nancy Drew the situation instead. Cue various break-ins, invasions of adult spaces and an amateur seance, while their respective mothers — who, oddly, aren’t all so helicopter-y as to let their daughters have cellphones — wonder what on earth they’re up to. That there isn’t much of a mystery to solve isn’t a problem, given that it’s little more than a spur for the girls to work through their own insecurities and concerns about the life ahead. “It used to be better to be older, but now it doesn’t seem that great,” Mari muses, in case we hadn’t sensed the message.
But “Summering” never quite unlocks the girls as individual personalities, and after that promisingly discursive introduction, the script defines them by single, sitcom-style character traits. Ponsoldt and Percy don’t always demonstrate an ear for how Generation Alpha speak and think, while clunky lines like “We were probably gonna go on TikTok or watch a movie later” feel like strained attempts to inject currency into a script with a wafty sense of time and place. (That Dina is a “CSI” fanatic is perhaps its hardest detail to swallow.) Beyond a subplot involving Daisy’s absent father — men, indeed, are rarely visible in the film’s world — the girls’ inner lives are largely closed off to us. But so are easier details to fill in. The inclusion of Taylor Swift’s lovely, wistful folk reverie “Seven” over the closing credits is about the heaviest hint we get as to the girls’ incidental passions and fandoms.
Interestingly, some of the film’s most affecting, naturally performed moments come when the girls are away from each other, trying to find common language instead with their mothers — played with retiring good grace by Megan Mullally, Lake Bell, Ashley Madekwe and viral comic Sarah Cooper. A lovely scene of Mullally on her own, trying to strike a balance between panic and diplomacy as she she leaves her daughter a concerned voicemail, provides the kind of textured real-world grounding that “Summering” could use more of. Which isn’t to dismiss its stray, beguiling forays into magical realism, as when the girls, upon stepping into “Terabithia,” briefly and dizzily defy gravity, or when a naive mural of a tree in a deserted school corridor suddenly sheds its hand-printed leaves. Too much of “Summering,” however, plays out in an unsatisfying middle ground: embedded neither in real life, nor in its heroines’ restless, malleable imaginations.