Two things inspired James Ponsoldt to direct and co-write Summering, his newest movie about a group of adolescent girls who discover a dead body under a highway overpass. The first was the discovery of an actual dead body not far from his home; the second was a desire to have more pre-teen coming-of-age films to show his daughter.
"When I was her age, there were so many coming-of-age films where I could see a version of myself and the conversations that my friends and I were having," Ponsoldt tells A.frame, an acknowledgment of what he calls "tremendous male privilege." "I really wanted to make a story that was centrally about female friendship."
In Summering, best friends Daisy (Lia Barnett), Dina (Madalen Mills), Lola (Sanai Victoria) and Mari (Eden Grace Redfield) make a pact to identify the dead body together — one last adventure before they go their separate ways for middle school. The dead body plot will sound familiar to fans of Stand By Me, but the inspiration actually came from his own life.
"There was an older man found dead not far from where I lived," Ponsoldt says. "He couldn't be ID'd. The fact that he couldn't even get the dignity of being named upon death felt like a signifier of a breakdown in our social contract with each other." In attempting to have those complicated conversations with his own children, he found the plot of the film.
Each girl in the film has their own reason for wanting to investigate the mystery corpse — Daisy is struggling with the disappearance of her father, Dina and Lola have watched a few too many episodes of Law & Order, and Mari is just along for the ride — and each reacts to this brush with mortality differently. In grappling with the trauma of the situation, Ponsoldt found himself thinking back to a particular film from his own childhood.
"Bambi was traumatizing when I was a kid," he says. "Bambi is maybe 70 minutes long, and Bambi's mom getting shot is what you remember. You don't remember much [else]. I think the idea of processing trauma through horror and imagination for kids who are at an age where they can't yet articulate themselves was really meaningful to me."
Ponsoldt hasn't watched Summering with his daughter yet ("I'm nervous and excited," he says), but she provided her input during the making of the movie. Ponsolt and longtime writing partner Benjamin Percy turned to the women around them in an effort to make the film as authentic to the female experience as possible, for both the girls and their mothers (played by Lake Bell, Sarah Cooper, Ashley Madekwe and Megan Mullally).
"My goal is always to have the fingerprints of my collaborators all over it."
"A good bulk of the things that I've done have had female protagonists, from Janeane [Garofalo] in my first short to Mary Elizabeth Winstead, to Emma Watson, to Riley Keough, to Lizzie Olsen," says the filmmaker. "Men and women each make up 50 percent of the world, so we really should be interested in multiple subjectivities about each other if we're going to unpack patriarchal structures that are toxic and that need to be unpacked."
That said, he emphasizes that this is only possible "with the full recognition that there are blindspots." On Summering, that meant relying on the women in his life to read the script as they were still writing it ("Really asking, 'What do you connect to? What do you not connect to?' and nviting them to prosecute it"), as well as his female collaborators throughout filming: Among them, producer Jen Dana, costume designer Marie Schley, music supervisor Tiffany Anders and cinematographer Greta Zozula. "We spent a year and a half before we shot talking almost every weekend about the film."
"It’s about humility and being open to what you don’t know and listening," he concludes. "My goal is always to have the fingerprints of my collaborators all over it."