Greetings again from the darkness. Obviously, I was never a young girl fretting over the first year of middle school, and I would venture a guess that neither were writer-director James Ponsoldt or co-writer Benjamin Percy. The reason for this point is that this is a story of four girls in this situation, as well as the stress their actions load on their four mothers. Ponsoldt and Percy make this an observational story, rather than a personal one … a significant point of difference for a film like this. I had agreed to review the film based on being a huge fan of Mr. Ponsoldt’s 2013 film, THE SPECTACULAR NOW, but while that one was adapted from a novel, this current film is an original, and it lacks the depth and refinement of that previous gem … despite some decent acting from the cast, young and older.

Daisy (Lia Barnett), Lola (Sanai Victoria), Dena (Madalen Mills), and Mari (Eden Grace Redfield) are best friends frittering away the last few days of summer by hanging out the way young kids used to. There are no scheduled soccer practices and no structured piano lessons, only (mostly) unsupervised freedom to explore and live the moments that make up a day. The mothers (Lake Bell, Megan Mullaly, Sarah Cooper, Ashley Madekwe) are normal moms – carrying the burden of parenthood, work, and self-identity. They care for their daughters very much, despite one of them spending most of her non-working hours in an alcohol and divorce-induced sleep mode, oblivious to the comings and goings of her kid.

The film has a terrific start. We see the girls simply enjoying being around each other and sharing their concerns for the upcoming school year. This segment seems very natural and realistic. We immediately pick up on their personalities. Daisy is reserved and longs to be noticed. Lola is spiritually connected and will be the guiding force for an activity later in the story. Dena is quite smart and grounded in reality, while Mari frets over wearing a skirt to Catholic school. The friends banter about their uncertain future and the conversation drifts and bounces, just as we’d expect.

Things change quickly as the girls head to “Terabithia”, their secret spot off the beaten path. It’s here where they discover the body of an adult man who seemingly jumped from “Suicide Bridge” above. It’s at this point where we realize this is a girl version of Rob Reiner’s classic STAND BY ME (1986). Only that’s not what happens. Instead, we are subjected to a Nancy Drew knock-off where the girls attempt to solve the case as they wax philosophically about growing older. Almost nothing works from this point onward. We don’t really get to better understand each of the girls, and significant time is spent on their mothers’ reactions. Ghosts appear, while dads are presented in unfavorable light. The narration is heavy-handed, and what started with the theme of ‘anything is possible during summer’, leaves us with clunky dialogue and very little insight to pre-middle school girls.

Opening in theaters on August 12, 2022


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