A quartet of pre-teen girls while away the dwindling days of summer before they start middle school when they make a shocking discovery in the woods. If that sounds a little bit like Rob Reiner’s 1986 classic drama Stand By Me, the bones of that Stephen King adaptation are definitely in this film’s DNA. But director James Ponsoldt and his co-writer Benjamin Percy take that outline in entirely different directions in this warm, thoroughly enjoyable story of kids on the cusp of big life changes going all in on one last grand adventure.
Daisy (Lia Barnett), Lola (Sanai Victoria), Dina (Madalen Mills), and Mari (Eden Grace Redfield) have it pretty good, in some ways. Friends through all their years in grammar school, they are also free-range children allowed to roam – even Mari, despite having a worrywart mom, Stacie (Megan Mullally), who tracks her daughter’s every move through a cell phone app. Smaller than the rest of the girls, about to be separated from her pals when she enrolls in private school while they remain in public, and always trying her best to be good, her worries follow her like a little cloud. So, too, do Daisy’s, whose cop mom Laura (Lake Bell) drinks too much and whose dad has disappeared from her life without even a goodbye. In contrast, Lola, whose mom Karna (comedian Sarah Cooper) is a nurse and single parent, and Dina, whose mother Joy (Ashley Madekwe), is of the helicopter variety, enjoy more stable home lives.
As August winds down and the 11-year-olds prepare for the transition to the next stage of their lives, they make one last trip to the private world they’ve dubbed “Terabithia,” named for the magical kingdom of Katherine Paterson’s children’s novel, Bridge to Terabithia. In this urban forest, not far from their homes but seemingly a world away, the girls have created their own private realm, decorating a tree with ephemera of their lives. And it’s next their special place that they find the thing that pierces the veil of their childhood, giving them a sordid glimpse into the adult world while offering one final opportunity for adventure before the preoccupations of preadolescence begins.
Ponsoldt does a tremendous job of setting the scene. From leaves rustling to a thunder storm that drenches the town, the visuals and sound design are so striking and redolent of the season that they’re tactile. The film plays out like a lazy summer’s day where you can feel the fading season’s hot breeze on your face and smell the muskiness of the woods and the metallic electricity of a coming lightning strike.
The young cast is fabulous, easily selling the conceit that these are longtime BFFs and that all of them – including Mari, who really, really wants to tell the adults what they’ve found – are terrific as mini-Nancy Drews by way of CSI reruns. One amusing scene has the four of them poking around their “crime scene,” the latex gloves, no doubt liberated from Lola’s mom, covering their hands demonstrating their seriousness. These are whip-smart young women, fearless when following clues and endlessly resourceful. But they are still children, and seemingly supernatural moments in the film could simply be kids’ active imaginations reacting to the situation they find themselves in.
The way the mothers are woven into the story is another of Summering’s strengths. They’re worried about their daughters but also see in them the girls they once were. And rather than explode in fury at these thoughtless children for the anxiety they’ve cause their parents, the women appreciate the strength of the relationship. And mourn how hard it is to form those kinds of tight friendships in adulthood.
The trick of this immensely satisfying drama is that it is a movie about the inner lives of girls made by men. Ponsoldt, whose previous films include The Spectacular Now; that most male of movies, the David Foster Wallace drama The End of the Tour; and The Circle; and novelist and comic-book writer Perry are both fathers of daughters. They pay homage to their own kids while making a film in which tween girls can see themselves reflected. Not bad, dads. Not bad at all.