Movie Review: “Summering” Tween Girls Stumble Through “Stand By Me”

It wasn’t a terrible idea.

James Ponsoldt, my idea of the quintessential “indie” filmmaker, who makes character-driven dramas such as “The Spectacular Now” and “The End of the Tour,” takes a stab at bringing us a girls’ coming of age picture in the “Stand By Me” mold.

In “Summering,” four tweenage girls spend their last weekend before starting middle school finding a body and not telling their parents — event the “helicopter moms” among them — about it. Instead they “investigate” who he was and what happened, and even hold a seance to “contact” him.

So yes, there’s the whiff of Stephen King’s story “The Body” to this, with emotional BFF bonding and the like. But barely a note of this contrived, Nutrasweetened melodrama engages, even on those rare instances in which something rings true.

Daughters or not, having a guy co-write this girls’ story with Ponsoldt shows in every false note.

Daisy (Lia Barnett) is our narrator in this sentimental — set in the present day — tale of suburban 11 year-olds who finish off a giddy suburban summer of somersaulting through sprinklers by stumbling across a man, in a suit, lying beneath an overpass.

Mari (Eden Grace Redfield) wants to phone it in, tell the cops and her mother. But Lola (Sanai Victoria), Daisy and Dina (Madalen Mills) vote her down.

A couple of their moms are “helicopter” qualified, but Mari’s mom (Megan Mullally) is the pilot. Their reasoning? If they tell their mothers, “they’ll think we’re like, traumatized” and go overboard in their concern. It’s “our last weekend” of summer. Who wants to deal with the cops AND their mothers (Sarah Cooper, Ashley Mdadekwe and Lake Bell play the others) for an entire weekend?

In news stories and in the movies, dating back to “River’s Edge” and “Stand By Me,” it’s pretty well established that kids are fully capable of this sort of insensate stupidity.

With narrator Daisy leading the way, they start poking around the body, looking for clues — “What, you’ve never seen ‘C.S.I?” And their last adventure of summer takes them to a bar, a locked school, online and elsewhere in search of who this man was, which will tell them whether he jumped or might have been pushed off that bridge.

The dynamics of the various families are interesting enough — a joking pep talk about “the seventh circle of hell” that middle school is from an older sister, this painter mom or that smothering-mothering mom picking up on “something” being off when their children come home from their trip to “Terabithia” (a tree they’ve decorated with mementoes).

The fathers are mostly invisible here.

The kids hang together but don’t really click, largely because the characters don’t have much in the way of earthy reality about them. Their edges have been rubbed off by the daddy screenwriters. They don’t even cuss, the little angels. And here they are, picking over a body and MOVING the body so nobody else sees it?

I’ve been a Ponsoldt fan since his feature debut, “Off the Black.” He’s made three outstanding films built around alcoholics (“Smashed” and “Spectacular Now” and “Off the Black”), and his winners far outnumber the occasional missteps like “The Circle” or now, “Summering.”

The occasional great line in even this one — about “how August feels, like ‘the good part’ is over” — will have to tide one over until his next movie, hopefully one that’s a lot better than this.

Rating:  PG-13 for some thematic material

Cast: Lia Barnett, Sanai Victoria, Madalen Mills, Eden Grace Redfield, Sarah Cooper, Megan Mullally, Ashley Mdadekwe and Lake Bell.

Credits: Directed by James Ponsoldt, scripted by James Ponsoldt and Benjamin Percy. A Bleecker Street release.

Running time: 1:25

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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