James Ponsoldt Takes a Vacation from Making Good Movies with Summering

Movies Reviews Lake Bell
James Ponsoldt Takes a Vacation from Making Good Movies with Summering

“Who killed Howard Mahone?”, the question at the center of James Ponsoldt’s new film, Summering, is less important than the question making up its edges: “What the hell happened to James Ponsoldt?” After establishing himself as an earnest chronicler of American alcoholism and aimless youth in his first three movies—Off the Black, Smashed and The Spectacular Now—the Georgia filmmaker hit awards season success with The End of the Tour, a two-guys-talking picture based on journalist David Lipsky’s same-named memoir about his experiences with David Foster Wallace years before the author’s suicide. Ponsoldt seemed poised for big things.

Then he adapted David Eggers’ The Circle, a job for which he was ill-suited and which turned up embarrassing results. No problem. Everyone has off days, or in his case off years. But Summering extends those off years into Ponsoldt’s most puzzling effort so far, a genre jumble roping together a kid-detective novel, a ghost story, a hokey “do you know where your children are” PSA and a coming-of-age dramedy. These combine into a take on David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows watered down by an imbalance of Nancy Drew offering none of either’s pleasures. It’s a consequence of confused direction that’s frankly beneath a filmmaker of Ponsoldt’s talent. He should be able to make a movie like this in his sleep.

Summering unfolds during the season’s dog days as four pals—Daisy (Lia Barnett), Lola (Sanai Victoria), Dina (Madalen Mills) and Mari (Eden Grace Redfield)—try gamely to hold onto passing moments, fearful of what’ll happen to their fellowship when they set foot into middle school. Will they stay pals? Will one of them emerge as the group’s mean girl and shatter their collective bond? Will the discovery of a stinking corpse just a dozen feet away from their secret hideout (named “Terabithia” in a far too obvious nod to one of Summering’s chief influences) visit on them a fate worse than middle school, traditionally the hellhole where kids suffer the worst years of their lives under pubescent duress? What will their parents think?

The parents pose one of the film’s biggest problems. They’re just not interesting, even though Ponsoldt has cast them with interesting actresses: Lake Bell, Ashley Madekwe, Megan Mullally, Sarah Cooper. In a story ostensibly about children, Summering gives the adults more oxygen than they need. Ponsoldt awkwardly tries to lead them to totally unearned catharsis toward the movie’s conclusion, jockeying for position with the catharsis his young principal actors actually deserve. Making friends is hard when you’re grown up, Ponsoldt’s screenplay tells us. True enough, but that’s a life lesson for a movie other than the one he’s made, though the one he’s made spills over with problems much bigger than mismanaged subplots, like mismanaged tone.

Summering bathes in the jejune idyll native to childhood, a happy, acceptable form of innocence every preteen is permitted to enjoy. As cheesy as these moments often are, they’re the purest expression of what Ponsoldt appears to want to say with these characters about the existential crisis of maturing into a new life stage. Growing up is a king bummer. Being young isn’t so hot, either, because being young means living at the mercy of cruel vagaries outside of your control, like drifting apart from your friends or, again, tripping over a man’s rotting carcass. Daisy, Lola, Dina and Mari decide to find out how Mahone (Nick Mathews, credited only as “Dead Man”) met his end, but of course without telling their mothers, because why throw a wet blanket over a good old-fashioned murder-mystery that occasionally slips into horror mode with all the grace of a stooge slipping on a banana peel?

Ponsoldt has constructed Summering with what can generously be described as absentmindedness: Every once in a while, as if suddenly remembering the supernatural element, one of the girls sees Mahone’s gnarly wraith coldly glaring at them from across the street, outside the window, from the passenger seat of an approaching bus. Each of these moments lands dully and without consequence. The specter is just there, a feeble attempt at Scooby-Dooing the film or molding it into Riverdale Lite. It’s a bust either way.

Growing up is a lonely row to hoe. For Ponsoldt, making movies has become a similarly burdensome challenge, which feels like a loss. In his 2006 to 2015 run, and with The Spectacular Now in particular, Ponsoldt distinguished himself as a fresh American filmmaker verging on essential. He’s strayed far from that path in the last seven years. If there’s a positive takeaway from Summering, it’s that at least he’s trying to find his way back to that path and back to the kind of filmmaker he was in 2013. Maybe he’ll get there with his next production. In Summering, all he manages is to stumble off the track that led to The Circle. That’s undeniably good news. But it doesn’t make Summering a good movie.

Director: James Ponsoldt
Writers: James Ponsoldt, Benjamin Percy
Starring: Lia Barnett, Sanai Victoria, Madalen Mills, Eden Grace Redfield, Lake Bell, Ashley Madekwe, Megan Mullally, Sarah Cooper, Nick Mathews
Release Date: August 12, 2022

Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.

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