The beginning of James Ponsoldt’s Summering, which premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, starts like a slasher scenario of three girls hiding in the bathtub. A scary shadow lurks from behind the shower curtain to reveal itself as a game of make-believe. Daisy (Lia Barnett), Mari (Eden Grace Redfield), Lola (Sanai Victoria) and Dina (Madalen Mills) spend their last weekend together before the start of middle school. Summering is an enduring story of how these four tween girls navigate their lives and the adversities of growing up.
Daisy, Mari, Lola and Dina are spending the last weekend together just before they start school. Worried about whether they might become distant from each other, each girl must deal with her own problems. Daisy’s father recently went missing and her mother (Lake Bell) barely cares about finding him; Mari is going to a Catholic school while her friends go to traditional middle school; Lola and Dina are growing apart because of their different personalities.
Just before starting middle school, the girls ask their parents to spend one last weekend together. With permission, the four girls head over to their secret hideout. “Terabithia awaits,” chimes one of the girls. We travel over a stream and to a tree decorated in ribbons, toys and gifts. As they are exploring the forest, Daisy finds a dead body. The girls are young, so they cannot figure out if he is real or not. Mari suggests calling the cops but they decide to investigate and solve the mystery of his death on their own. They take a picture of him and visit places in town to search for clues. Together the girls work to figure out who the mysterious dead man is. As they do, a ghost haunts them, all while the pressures of middle school linger in their minds.
Per Ponsoldt’s statement, he wanted to make a story that reflected his daughter’s life. He also wanted to explore her fears. The coming-of-age genre is somewhat dominated by stories of boys and girls who are usually written as love interests. But Summering is a different story within itself. It’s not a fantasy, even though it has elements of it. This is despite references to Gábor Csupó’s Bridge to Terabithia. Terabithia is a legendary coming-of-age story that wrecked the hearts of every teen who’s read it.
It’s a movie that uses imagination as a way of escaping trauma and fear. and because the young girls are starting middle school, they needed a little adventure of their own to end their summer. The movie has dreamlike moments of the girls flying over a stream. It also shows us how dreams become nightmares using the face of a ghost appearing outside their bedroom windows. The movie also mixes genres, fantasy, horror and drama, to show the realities of growing up.
It is refreshing to see female friendships not being defined by trauma. Instead the focus is on growing up, starting school and the fear of growing apart. There is a feeling in the movie that the kids don’t want to grow up. That they don’t want to be presented with the realities of becoming an adult. The appearance of the body prepares them to confront the future. It also opens the door to the fact that there are certain things adults hide from children.
After Daisy’s father disappears, she longs to find out the truth about him. She worries that her mother, who is a police officer, does not care about him and has made no effort to find it at all. One night as the girls are in Daisy’s home, her father comes in, but he wasn’t expecting her to be home. Daisy expected her father to be overjoyed after seeing her, but his lack of affection towards her makes her sad. When she confronts her mother about it, she finally tells her the truth about their separation.
Summering isn’t a conventional coming-of-age story. The girls are not sitting around and talking about boys. The girls debate about the merits and faults of school uniforms and how skirts are patriarchal and change their names to Switchblade, Medusa and Tangerine. Despite these themes and narratives, there are problems with how little the audience knows about the group. Dina’s role in the group is that she is the mean one, but there isn’t a moment where she reflects on her actions or realizes it can hurt people. Mari’s mother calls her a prude, and Daisy’s life is challenging as she takes care of her mother. The last character, Lola, has no interesting qualities about her except that she is spiritual, lights candles, and occasionally gets into arguments with Dina.
Despite these issues, Summering offers an invigorating take on the fear of growing up. It treats the realities of childhood, growing up and going to middle school like a horror movie. It shows an admirable friendship between the girls, although it can be troubling to agree on certain things. The relationships between the girls and their mothers are different too and explore a deeper and more honest connection between them, one that is rooted in honesty. Ponsoldt’s Summering feels a bit disjointed as the themes and narratives are all over the place, but there are so many moments between them that makes the movie worthwhile.