Summering: The Spectacular Now, by David Bax
With its list of story points that include tween friends, summer vacation and a dead body, the lazy read on James Ponsoldt‘s Summering would be that it’s simply an updated reimagining of Rob Reiner‘s Stand by Me but with girls. That offhand description may provide a loose idea of what the movie’s about but, when it comes to how it feels, Summering is its own animal.
That said, Summering did put me in mind of Stephen King (who wrote Stand by Me‘s source material, the short story “The Body”) in a different way. In the novel It, when young Ben Hanscomb leaves a school year behind and ventures out into summer break, he reflects on how it may only be three months on the calendar but it’s actually much longer than that in experience. On Chance the Rapper’s “Do You Remember,” guest vocalist Ben Gibbard describes the same phenomenon: “Do you remember how when you were younger/the summer’s all lasted forever.” Ponsoldt taps into that feeling by letting the movie remain languid and airy even as the first day of school gets closer and the girls (Lia Barnett, Madalen Mills, Eden Grace Redfield and Sanai Victoria) embark on what is essentially a murder mystery investigation.
If there are moments that break that spell, they’re probably those in which Summering ventures into horror (hey, maybe King is a bigger influence here than I thought). One by one, the girls are haunted by the image of the dead man they found in the woods as they try to go about their last days of freedom. This person–anonymous, besuited and, again, dead–may represent their fears about the looming grind of adulthood and the lack of reward that comes with it.
In its actual, physical form, the corpse is less menacing. It’s simply a thing, which is a frightening thought in its own right. On other hand, it’s also the source of one of the movie’s rare moments of comedy when it does an impression of Daniel Radcliffe in Swiss Army Man, if you catch my meaning.
Perhaps the most compelling argument that Summering is no Stand by Me retread, though, is the fact that, while Reiner’s film was backwards looking and imbued with nostalgia–taking place almost 30 years before the movie was released–Ponsoldt’s is very much set in the now. This is evident in the use of smart phones and computers but, more specifically, in the ways the girls’ moms (the dads are barely present, if at all) use those phones and computers as monitoring devices, keeping tabs on their kids whenever and as thoroughly as possible. Summering ponders just how one goes about being a kid while being helicopter parented.
Still, the movie is not entirely critical of these moms (played by Lake Bell, Sarah Cooper, Ashley Madekwe and Megan Mullally, a surprisingly comedy-heavy team for a film that’s not especially funny). This isn’t a parents-just-don’t-understand story. They do understand and remember what it was like to be a kid. But they also understand a lot more than their daughters do at this point in their lives. It’s telling that the movie ends with Taylor Swift‘s “Seven,” a song about looking back on memories of a childhood friend and seeing the pain you couldn’t perceive at the time, playing over the credits. Hell, maybe I was wrong. Maybe Summering is a bittersweet nostalgia movie after all.