James Ponsoldt has made several very good films, including The Spectacular Now and The End of the Tour. His latest, Summering, is a real change of pace, in that it's essentially a kids' movie. I saw it for the first time at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival and felt there were some problems in terms of maintaining a consistent tone. The cut being released theatrically is slightly different. A couple noticeable improvements have been made to the first half that clarify the characters' personalities and put the story on a clear-cut path. The second half still doesn't work, though, seemingly because the problems are too baked into the plot to be altered. I don't think the picture quite works, but after those two viewings, I definitely have appreciation for what Ponsoldt is trying to do. I'd rather see a director try something ambitious and miss than go for an easy hit.

In a twist on Stand by Me, the story revolves around four young girls who find the dead body of an adult male in a ravine on the last days of summer before middle school starts. The key figure is Daisy (Lia Barnett), and her friends are Lola (Sanai Victoria), Dina (Madalen Mills), and Mari (Eden Grace Redfield). Rather than reporting their discovery, they attempt to investigate how the man might have ended up there. In the background, Daisy deals with hurt over the fact that her father abandoned the family, for reasons she doesn't understand. Looking into the dead guy's identity drudges up her own issues.

For the first 45 minutes, Summering is a coming-of-age tale, with the girls fretting about what will happen to their friendship when they go to middle school. Wanting to preserve the integrity of this summer is what motivates them to not tell an adult about the dead man. Ponsoldt does an excellent job capturing that vibe we all remember from childhood, where summer felt like a magical time whose end loomed like a storm cloud. Watching the girls wander into a bar they believe the guy frequented is fun, as are the scenes where they walk around their small town, theorizing about the unexplained death or simply just engaging in normal kid talk.

The actresses at the core create a very authentic bond. We believe that we're watching longtime friends interacting. Lia Barnett is a particular standout, nicely conveying the confusion and pain inside Daisy, whose mom (Lake Bell) has never fully been truthful about why her dad ran out. Her performance is completely natural, as are those of Victoria, Mills, and Redfield.

And that is the problem. In the second half, Summering leans on a horror element. Each of the girls has a terrifying vision of a ghost or demonic figure. One of them has a scary encounter in a school bathroom. Given the quality of the acting from the central quartet, the movie doesn't need this material, especially since nothing comes of it, other than a séance scene whose purpose could have been handled in a different, more organic way. Perhaps the ghostly stuff was meant to suggest the fear of middle school the girls have. Regardless, we already get that from the dialogue. No need exists to metaphorically play it out. The dead guy being a red herring – neither they nor we ever get to the bottom of his death – adds to the ending becoming a letdown.

Summering is best when it's in coming-of-age mode. The horror material felt out of place when I saw the movie at Sundance. That feeling remains. Combined with a disappointing resolution of the scenario in the middle of the story, the film starts strong and loses its way. Still, you have to respect Ponsoldt's admirable ambitions.

out of four

Summering is rated PG-13 for some thematic material. The running time is 1 hour and 27 minutes.