SUMMERING is heading to Sundance.

My middle school could have doubled as the set of The Lord of the Flies. I remember an M-80 blowing a locker off its hinges. I remember two of the biggest guys in school brawling in the hallway, kicking each other in the face with the sharp points of their cowboy boots. I remember beers downed beneath the bleachers, kids tossed in dumpsters, a chemical fire set in the shop, and three kids who attempted suicide. I remember my teacher knocking me out of my chair for talking during class. I remember pentagrams and fuck yous scratched into bathroom stalls. I remember the bad things that happened at the back of the bus.

This was thirty years ago, before helicopter parents and anti-bullying campaigns, and social curriculum became the standard. But sixth grade remains a time of dizzying transition. There are no more playgrounds, as you instead pretend you’re too hard for recess. There is no one teacher who looks after you, as you instead navigate a maze of fluorescent-lit hallways and become one more anonymous name on a roster in a series of interchangeable classrooms.

And then there are the bewildering, sometimes scary physical transformations. Bones stretch. Voices drop. Hormones surge. Hair and blood show up where they weren’t before.

You’re not a kid, but you’re not an adult. You occupy a weird, dizzying limbo.

High school might be the province of the horror movie, but in a way, middle school feels more deserving. It’s the industrial thresher, the gate to the cemetery. Once you step inside, a door slams behind you, and Santa Claus and crayons and swing sets and the Disney Channel are officially out of bounds.

This is the moment I’m now experiencing secondhand through my daughter. And this is the knotty, transitional space James Ponsoldt and I wanted to explore when we set out to write the script for Summering (which will premiere at the Sundance Film Festival 2022).

Four girls discover the body of a dead man. That’s the simplest distillation of a complex story, which takes place on the last weekend before summer ends and school begins. The rot of autumn is in the air, as blighted leaves fall from trees and cold rains wash over sun-brittled yards. The days are going to get darker soon, as adulthood beckons.

I’m known for my horror novels and horror comics, but in writing this script, I needed to code-shift. Consider the age of our eleven-year-old protagonists. They still retain some innocence and magic about them. They haven’t yet become the eye-rolling, phone-addicted, door-slamming, authority-defiant, morally deviant teenagers who might live on Elm Street or work at Camp Crystal Lake.

The trouble our girls get into—and the monsters they overcome—need to be legitimately scary, yes, but whimsically understood. As one of the characters says, “Bad people are just on TV…right?” They know adults keep things from them. They know wreckage awaits them in the world. But the future is an abstraction. They’re still young enough to be anxious about changing for gym class and memorizing a locker combo for the first time. We’re housed in the girls’ point of view, and for them, magic is still real. Monsters are still real. But being a grown-up? That’s still a lightning-laced thunderhead muttering on the horizon.

Villains—or monsters—are often an externalization of an internal wound. The vampirism in Midnight Mass, for instance, is analogous to the terrible, dangerous thirst for alcohol that led Riley Flynn to head-on another car, killing the driver. The Joker represents the chaos little Bruce Wayne experienced when his parents were killed so many years ago in Crime Alley, and his quest for law and order in Gotham is meant to remedy that.

In Summering, each of our four girls has their own struggle, but the principal trouble comes from Daisy (played by Lia Barnett). Her father, we come to learn, has vanished. She doesn’t know if he’s dead. She doesn’t know if she’s been abandoned. We suspect that her mother, who falls asleep in a recliner with a glass of vodka in hand and the TV blaring, is hiding the truth from her.

But when she and her friends discover a body—wearing a dusty suit, flopped facedown in an arroyo—the corpse becomes a surrogate for her missing father. Daisy needs to know what happened to the dead man, because she needs to know what happened to Dad.

And in the meantime, as the weekend progresses, a specter begins to haunt the girls. His face looks like something out of a Francis Bacon painting. Like a rain-smeared newspaper. Like a half-erased chalkboard. He appears in mirrors and windows. A half-glimpsed phantom of the ugly truths that patiently await them.

The code-shifting I mentioned before applied not just to age but to gender. Like every dork dad, I was excited to share essential books and movies from my childhood with my kids. But when we watched movies like Stand by Me, The Goonies, and Monster Squad—or when we read novels like The Hobbit—my daughter’s response was, “That was fun, Dad, but where are the girls?”

It was about representation, yes, but it was also about revising horror tropes. We open up with a moment that is modeled after the shower scene in Psycho—and completely defies audience expectations. The ghost of the dead man stalks the girls through a suburban environment—with some shots that draw direct inspiration from Michael Myers—but while we embrace fear, we defy victimization.

There are fart jokes, and there are midnight seances. There are TikTok dances, and there are tear-streaked burials. The film’s style, tone, and genre are intentionally fluid, just like the season we set it in, just like the eleven-year-old girls who are our main characters. We play with comedy, and we play with fantasy, and we play with outright horror. The whiplash between these extremes is supposed to be unnerving, like getting tickled one second and slugged in the stomach the next. Just like skipping out of the happy hand-holding togetherness of an elementary playground and charging into a grease-stinking cafeteria where no one offers you a seat at their table.

The result—we hope—is a story that channels the coming-of-age journey of Stand by Me and the ephemeral horror of Picnic at Hanging Rock.

Summering premieres at Sundance January 22 @ 4pm PST with a second screening January 24 @ 7am PST. Single screening tickets are now on sale, along with day package and explorer pass options. Click hereto purchase now.

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