There’s been an interesting shift in teen and young adult romance films and rom-coms recently. For a while, these movies have been obsessed with unrequited love and often correlate young love with death in a frankly bizarre way; The Fault in Our Stars, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Midnight Sun, Five Feet Apart, Everything Everything, The Notebook, The Last Song, and A Walk to Remember is just a cursory glance at these terminal romance flicks. There’s something subtly nefarious about these movies, with Justine Smith astutely commenting for The National Post:
Terminal romances are less about love, and more about the fetishization of youth — often with female characters whose significance is only found in how they affect the men in their lives. These movies portray love frozen in time, uncorrupted by the trials of long-term monogamy. More than the disease, aging is presented as the true threat against love in an adult world that is consistently portrayed as cynical and corrupted. For women especially, the conservative expectations these romantic ideals impose are limiting and infantilizing.
Sofia Alvarez Takes Netflix Along For the Ride
Fortunately, a new wave of more optimistic, progressive, and less inherently misogynistic young romance movies are being made, from The Sky is Everywhere on Apple TV+ to the critically acclaimed and beloved To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. Sofia Alvarez, the writer of the latter film, has now made her directorial debut with the Netflix film Along For the Ride, based on the popular Sarah Dessen novel of the same name. She takes the positive, affirmative themes of her previous scripts and slathers it with a polished style aimed at stimulating all the senses, and in some ways, it works really well.
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Along For the Ride follows recent high school graduate Auden (played by Emma Pasarow), who decides to spend the summer before college with her dad, stepmother, and new baby stepbrother in a small town by the beach. Auden may be a little socially awkward, but not nearly as much as she thinks. It’s obvious that her parents’ divorce and her overbearing, semi-famous mother (played by a perfectly obnoxious Andie MacDowell) have affected her in some ways she continues to repress, so when she meets a similarly sullen 20-year-old named Eli (played by Belmont Cameli), they recognize the damage in each other.
Related: Along for the Ride: Plot, Cast, and Everything Else We Know
There’s an overabundance of romance movies about troubled youth, where two supposed ‘misfits’ (who are actually extremely attractive and charming) are dealing with similar issues, turning sadness into a spectator sport and looking cute while pouting. While Along For the Ride isn’t entirely different in this respect and succumbs to similar romance movie clichés, it is proudly part of a new type of romance movie which isn’t so obsessed with suffering. Eli and Auden aren’t toxic or codependent, and he isn’t utterly unavailable emotionally. The characters like each other here, the girls aren’t viciously mean to one another, the boys don’t physically bully the weaker guys, and people make space for conversation, and nobody ‘wins.’ It’s like an anti-John Hughes aesthetic.
Along For the Ride Has Great Style Over Little Substance
In fact, the little world Alvarez creates is kind of idyllic and beautiful, with some scenes straight out of a fantasy movie — the tuxedo-clad boy and the girl in a yellow dress dance on the beach, a hip café is hidden behind the walls of a dingy laundromat, a beached bonfire brings laughter followed by night swimming. Combined with the stylistic direction, Along For the Ride is almost a tone poem dedicated to the fantasy of youth, filled with hope for what coming-of-age could be like in a better world.
This is largely accomplished by Alvarez’s dreamier directorial choices. She often lets the sound drop out completely, wisely in favor of the ethereal score from the great indie-pop band Beach House (their first film score), whose music perfectly accompanies images of youthful frolicking and the ephemeral joy of summer. Music supervisors Jessica Berndt and Jane Abernethy are also heavy-hitters in Along For the Ride, curating an excellent selection of indie and underrated pop-rock musicians from the past decade.
Related: The Sky is Everywhere Review: One of the Sweetest and Simplest A24 Movies
Musical choices and smart needle drops are integral in media aimed at younger people. From Euphoria to The OC, depictions of teenage and young adult life connect much better to audiences with sounds that appropriately tap into the cultural zeitgeist or exhibit a kind of coolness that transcends typical scores. The indie soundtrack of Along For the Ride is one of the best in years — Electrelane, Nilufer Yanya, Cleaners From Venus, No Age, Santigold, Lykke Li, Yumi Zouma, Small Black, Gang of Youths, Girls, The Drums, Yeasayer, Youth Lagoon, Troye Sivan and several others appear at just the right times, creating the perfect summer mixtape for a breezy summer movie.
Cinematographer Luca Del Puppo is up for the challenge of crafting suitable images for the wonderful music. Consequently, the dialogue and narrative matter much less compared to the feeling of certain scenes, and Along For the Ride becomes like a summer scrapbook, a memory montage filled with the kinds of images and sounds which sear their eternal existence into one’s mind during the impressionable years of youth. The film’s plot and stakes are ultimately subordinate to this; watching the movie is like enjoying the memories of someone’s best summer, and how things happen are a lot more enjoyable than what’s actually happening.
Coming of Age With Kindness
In a sense, the best coming-of-age films are often like this. If one looks back on Dazed and Confused, Boyhood, Lady Bird, Blue is the Warmest Color, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, or Pariah, none of these movies care too much about their plot. Perhaps this is because there aren’t very many majorly dramatic events going on with people younger than 20, or because the most formative moments in youth are often universally common and actually pretty dull and predictable (as important as they may be). Whatever the reason, a good coming-of-age film is more about encapsulating the feeling of youth, the transition between childhood, and some burgeoning blossom of maturity.
This is what Along For the Ride does well. It captures the mood and tone of that summer between high school and college, in which fear and hope oscillate, and creates an audiovisual portrait of the power of first things — first friends, first loves, first jobs, first parties, first disappointments. When the film drops its style and focuses on substance, it falters a bit, because there’s very little to fall back on. It’s a surprisingly bare-bones story, a skeleton adorned with the skin of cinematic style, so when the music and dreamy moments subside, the film is downright anemic.
This is no fault of the actors, who do their best with the skeletal script. Belmont Cameli is a real standout here as Eli, a bicyclist who blames himself for a past tragedy but is a kind guy who’d just rather not talk about it. He’s almost like a young George Clooney here, or a kinder and less cynical Heath Ledger from 10 Things I Hate About You; he’s very charming and should have a good career ahead of him. Dermot Mulroney and Andie MacDowell are a little wasted, appearing minimally but doing a good job when they do, especially MacDowell. The young actors are naturalistic enough and do well, and everyone coalesces to form a very kind, communal whole.
Perhaps it’s too kind. Maybe this idyllic, beautiful summer is a bit too much of a fantasy, and an extremely jarring contrast from the terminal romance movies like The Notebook. From a critical standpoint, however, it’s probably less destructive to young people and relationships to watch a romance between kind kids than one with dead kids. Along For the Ride, now on Netflix, is very much alive, especially when it submits itself to its stylized aesthetics.
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From Matthew Mahler