There’s a moment in James Ponsoldt’s newest directorial effort Summering where the characters discuss what it would be like to have a new name; how they could reshape the meaning and depiction of their own childhoods and claim their lives as something new. This is similar to what Ponsoldt is trying to do with his new, straight from Sundance film – rebrand himself after the colossal failure of The Circle. And in a way, he does just that. I’m not sure in a way he intended to, though.
Summering follows four young girls living out their last weekend together before starting middle schools in different districts. Each find solace in each other given that they all come from backgrounds involving hardships and family strains, even if we only get a few glimpses into the lives of each of them. The exposition isn’t fully realized, but it is enough of an idea to grasp the general tone that Ponsoldt is going for. This is his SubUrbia or The Myth of the American Sleepover. It’s a microgenre of Gen Z freight that has grown in substantial numbers over the years given the ease of execution for filmmakers with lower budgets.
It would be easy to chalk this up as Ponsoldt’s edition to the cause, except he’s already made a much better film that achieves everything this film is going for. While The Spectacular Now feels like an artist well into his career and working at the peak of his powers, Summering feels like a beginning for an amateur – much like the aforementioned Gen Z pictures above. It is a troubling sign for a director with multiple notable titles to his name (The End of the Tour, at this point, has become monumentally overlooked and is one of the best Minnesota-set films of modern cinema not made by the Coens).
So where do we go from here, given that Summering isn’t much more than empty platitudes and half-baked ideas somewhat woven into a horror mashup and backed by a touching, albeit obviously overdone score. It’s hard to imagine James Ponsoldt getting back into the mainstream anytime soon given the successes of directors hitting on many of the same emotional beets that he relies on – Cooper Raiff being the most obvious successor here. It’s a disappointing career turn for a directing I had immense hope for given how wonderful his early 2010s were.
There are at least a few aspects of Summering worth giving props to, even if they aren’t able to save the film itself. It’s clear that Ponsoldt still has the same eye for color and intimacy. Many of the deep green colors from surrounding trees and grass stick out beautifully within many of the shots. It’s clear that a film like The Spectacular Now or Summering came from someone so in love with the natural beauty of the world. Mixing the palette with this particular score delivers a tone that works most of time, as long as it isn’t being broken up by the apparitions of spirits in one of the weirdest genre clashes I’ve seen in years.
I’m not sure if James Ponsoldt will be given the budget and room to make another film for a major studio, and I’m starting to worry about where he goes from here given that this film dropped and blew away in the wind quickly. It is not the worst film I have seen of 2022, but Summering is far away from the best.
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