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Sundance movie review: 'Summering' is a winner for both kids and adults

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Sundance movie review: 'Summering' is a winner for both kids and adults
From left, Madalen Mills, Sanai Victoria, Eden Grace Redfield and Lia Barnett star in "Summering." Photo courtesy of the Sundance Institute

LOS ANGELES, Jan. 25 (UPI) -- Summering, which premiered virtually at the Sundance Film Festival, is a kids movie both kids and adults can enjoy. Director James Ponsoldt treats the young protagonists with respect. The tone he creates also harkens back to many films with which today's adults grew up.

Daisy (Lia Barnett), Dina (Madalen Mills), Mari (Eden Grace Redfield) and Lola (Sanai Victoria) are spending their last weekend of summer together before middle school starts. They're going to separate schools so this is their last hurrah.

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The girls have made their own version of Terabithia from Katherine Paterson's novel Bridge to Terabithia in the woods. They find a dead body near their Terabithia and decide to spend the weekend trying to identify the body. If they don't succeed by Sunday, they'll call the police.

Summering is like a female Amblin movie. Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment produced many different movies in the '80s but were most famous for ones where kids went on adventures like The Goonies or Young Sherlock Holmes.

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They're cited as the inspiration for Stranger Things but most of Amblin's children's movies were centered around groups of boys. Summering reminds Hollywood that girls have the same sorts of friendships and adventures.

The individual personalities of the characters emerge quickly and welcome the audience into their group dynamic. The opening scenes are like a Richard Linklater movie where the four discuss school uniforms and changing their names, or sing "Mary Mack" together.

Dina is focused on the mystery because she watches crime shows on television. Mari is the most reticent about taking on this mystery themselves because she just wants to call the cops right away. Mari remains the voice of reason and keeps coming up with reasons to stop, but she's outnumbered.

Lola is open to spirituality and the paranormal, so sees the body as an unresolved spirit to whom they can bring peace. Daisy is quiet, observing her friends and deflecting attention away from herself. Daisy later reveals personal reasons for wanting to follow through solving their mystery.

The four girls do follow clues and piece together information on the identity of the body. They also navigate parental restrictions. They have to investigate in ways that won't draw the attention of their moms.

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In dealing with those practical concerns, they also recognize adult habits that they don't fully understand. Yet they know adults are hiding things from them. Mari says, "Sometimes adults know things but don't tell us."

That is a scathing indictment of the hubris of adults who believe they can keep secrets from children, even with good intentions. The kids each processing death in their own ways through this experience, too.

The girls' relationships with their mothers informs how they navigate the world, and what they need from their friends. Dina's mother (Ashley Madekwe) double checks whether her daughter is stressed and has taken her medication. The answers may temporarily calm the parent, but the questions themselves cause Dina stress.

Daisy's mother (Lake Bell) is already asleep when Daisy gets home. Daisy makes her coffee and prepares a shower for her in the morning. She's learned to be self-sufficient, but wants to be there for the mystery man.

Mari's mother (Megan Mullally) is positive and attentive but overprotective and oblivious. Only Lola's mother (Sarah Cooper) asks her daughter questions and actually listens to the answers.

Co-writers Benjamin Percy and James Ponsoldt craft language that sounds like grade schoolers but captures the emerging minds and souls of girls that age. Ponsoldt directs with a grounded style that really captures the essence of a childhood turning point. Barnett, Mills, Redfield and Victoria are all stars, but it will be bittersweet when they get their own vehicles without their costars.

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Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001 and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012. Read more of his work in Entertainment.

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