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‘Along for the Ride’ a sweet, inoffensive teen romance

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Few times are as turbulent in a young person’s life as the transition from adolescence to adulthood. At least, that’s what the lion’s share of pop culture from the past few decades would have us believe.

As such, we’ve come to expect certain specific beats when those stories unfold onscreen. We have seen minor variations on the same themes so many times that they’re essentially baked into the way we process these types of films. Even when we don’t know what’s coming, we know what’s coming.

Writer/director Sofia Alvarez doesn’t reinvent the wheel in her new film “Along for the Ride,” adapted from the 2009 Sarah Dessen novel of the same name. There’s a lot that will ring familiar, particularly at the center of the film; you’ve seen this movie before. However, Alvarez finds enough differences on the periphery to give the film a pleasant charm and keep you from experiencing too much teen romance déjà vu.

It's not a complex movie or a challenging one, but there’s some entertainment value here. The obstacles are mild and the triumphs are mundane, but the overall effect is a soothing 100-or-so minutes of low-stakes high school romance. Not much happens, but that’s OK – there’s value in just hanging out.

Auden (Emma Pasarow) is a high-achieving high school student who is getting ready to head off to the prestigious Defries University in the fall. Her longstanding social struggles lead her to seek opportunities for self-reinvention before college; this means leaving the watchful eye of her celebrated academic mother Victoria (Andie MacDowell) to instead spend the summer in the beachfront town of Colby with her novelist father Robert (Dermot Mulroney), her stepmother Heidi (Kate Bosworth) and her new baby half-sister.

Upon her arrival in Colby, Auden quickly realizes that changing oneself isn’t as easy as she might have thought. She goes to a party with some of the local young people and briefly hooks up with a dude named Jake (Ricardo Huarto), who turns out to be a bit of a player and the ex of a very popular girl named Maggie (Laura Kariuki).

Not long afterward, Auden goes to work doing some bookkeeping for Heidi’s beachside boutique, only to discover that Maggie works there, as do Maggie’s besties Leah (Genevieve Hannelius) and Esther (Samia Finnerty). There’s tension, as one might imagine. There’s some of that at home, too, as Auden finds herself unable to spend time with her dad, who is conspicuously absent most of the time, locked away in his office laboring on his new book.

Auden’s ongoing bout with insomnia leads her to make her way out onto the docks late at night, reading along next to the water. It’s here that she meets Eli (Belmont Cameli), a slightly older guy who works in Colby’s bike shop. A few chance encounters leads to a conversation leads to a connection between the two of them, a pair of different-yet-similar outsiders.

Together, they try to help Auden work through the experiences that she’s never had, the usual youthful acts and minor indiscretions that she missed due to her desire to be the perfect student/daughter/etc. This quest opens up some doors for Auden – she makes new friends and has new experiences – but when real feelings start bubbling up, things get complicated. Can Auden and Eli push through the emotional strangeness and maintain this burgeoning relationship?

I mean (spoiler alert), of course they can.

“Along for the Ride” is a pretty standard example of this sort of teen-oriented romance, a subgenre with which Netflix has had huge success in recent years. The fundamental structure – girl from out of town meets boy from in town and they teach each other about life (and maybe kiss a couple of times) – is something that we’ve seen a million times before. The formula is sound.

However, while the stew is familiar, the spice profile is just a little different. There’s a bit of zagging on the edges of this film. We’re set up for an active conflict between Auden and her stepmother – nope, they’re fine. Auden’s parents quarrel, but ultimately are civil. The mean girls turn out to not be that mean at all; once they get to know one another, they’re all friends. And there’s the ending, which I won’t spoil. Stuff’s just different enough to keep the whole thing from feeling like a warmed-over rehash.

(If you want to argue that Auden as a character is too perfect to be interesting, I won’t stop you. There’s a Mary Sue quality to her for sure; if the film was more reliant on conflict, it could be an issue, but it isn’t, so it isn’t.)

Alvarez is best known as the writer of the massive Netflix hit “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” and its sequel; “Along for the Ride” marks her directorial debut. As such, it’s not bad – she’s crafted a teen romance that is nicely cromulent in its standard-issueness. And please note that that isn’t a slight; there are a lot of these movies that are outright bad, so for her to be able to pull off something decent in her first go-round is impressive in its own right. Pretty good is, well … pretty good for a debut.

The performances are fine. I was unfamiliar with just about all of the younger actors in this movie. No one blew me away, but neither did anyone leave me cold. Acceptable work all around. The more famous faces – MacDowell, Bosworth, Mulroney – are solid enough, their veteran presences helping to elevate the proceedings. Bosworth in particular does a good job helping to ground the younger performers.

“Along for the Ride” isn’t a great movie. Nor is it a particularly memorable one. But as far as disposable Netflix teen romances go, it’s better than it needs to be. You’ll be charmed in the moment, with a smile still on your face even as the memory of the movie itself quickly fades away.

[3 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 09 May 2022 09:11

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