Minnesota novelist co-wrote new movie 'Summering,' with help from local women

Chris Hewitt
Star Tribune (TNS)

MINNEAPOLIS — Because Ben Percy's daughter Madeline wanted more female heroes, the Northfield writer's new movie opens Friday, with a lot of them.

"One day, after she got off the bus, I heard the backpack dump and her going upstairs," said Percy, who writes Wolverine comics for Marvel and whose books include "Suicide Woods" and "The Unfamiliar Garden." "I went upstairs and she was at the family computer, typing away. The document that was open was titled 'The Girl Hobbit' and she already had a few juicy paragraphs."

That incident helped bring home things that both Madeline — then 11, now 13 — and Ben were thinking about.

"When I was raising my kids (son Connor is 16), I was excited to share with them the stories that had meant so much to me, growing up. I was excited to read them 'The Yearling,' 'Where the Red Fern Grows,' 'The Outsiders,' 'The Hobbit.' I was excited to screen 'The Goonies' or 'Stand by Me.' And my daughter would say, 'That was awesome. But where are the girls?'" Percy recalled.

They are in "Summering," which opens Thursday at Hanover Movies 16. In fact, the movie — which shifts among four girls who investigate after they find a dead body and their moms, trying to track down their daughters — has no speaking parts for anyone with Y chromosomes. Other than some background boys and the corpse (a nod, of course, to "Stand by Me"), it's entirely female.

Percy wrote "Summering" with writer/director James Ponsoldt, whose films include "The End of the Tour." The friends met in graduate school — "when our biggest dreams were to publish a story in a midtier literary journal" — and have collaborated on several projects since, of which "Summering" is the first feature to reach the screen. They're also sketching out a TV series based on "Urban Cowboy" for Paramount Plus — all of which has become even easier for Percy to do from Northfield in the age of Zoom.

"We talk every day or every other day. Usually, it's over the phone and we're tossing around ideas about projects we might pursue," said Percy. "I know we were talking about our daughters (Ponsoldt's, Alice, is about the same age as Madeline) and about revisionism and about the idea of a neighborhood that consists entirely of women."

They knew they didn't want to make yet another movie that victimizes or sidelines female characters. But they're not above poking fun at those movies in the opening scene of theirs.

Benjamin Percy, a novelist who lives in Northfield, Minnesota, co-wrote "Summering," a female "Stand By Me," in which a group of girls discover a body. The movie opens Thursday at Hanover Movies 16.

"You have kids in a tub, cowering down. There's a shadow upon the curtain and it feels like a version of 'Psycho,'" said Percy. "As an audience, we've been trained how to respond to that, but then the curtain is ripped aside and we realize the girls have been playing Sardines and they all giggle because the girl who found them in the tub turns on the shower head and they all get wet."

Those kinds of innocent joys are what "Summering" is all about. Set in late August, it finds its four adolescent leads grappling with the possible unraveling of their tight unit, now that middle school is behind them. Ponsoldt and Percy are in their 40s, their middle school years long behind them, so they called in the "A" team to help them get girlhood right.

"I bounced ideas off Madeline and I enlisted a lot of girls and women from [Northfield]. Including Michelle Martin, her fifth-grade teacher at Prairie Creek, and Jessica Peterson White, who is the mother of one of Madeline's friends, is on the city council and owns Content, the book store in town, and a dozen others I'm not mentioning. I asked them to read the script and give me bald, harsh feedback," Percy said.

The script in place, the movie — set in an unnamed Everytown — was filmed in July 2021. Percy was dazzled when he visited the Salt Lake City set for a week or so.

"You have the actors, the cinematographer, the director in this intimate space. But all around them is construction chaos: Guys running cords here, building track there, building scaffolding around a house so it can appear like it's night, setting up a rain machine or LED machines so it seems like there's a lightning storm," said Percy. "It's a small town that rises up around every movie."

And, yes. Percy, who's also currently adapting his novel "The Ninth Metal" for Sony, would like to direct. Writing comics is similar to storyboarding a movie — drawing out each shot — and his novels are highly visual, so he has made steps in that direction. Now, he's preparing a short horror film, made in Minnesota, as a calling card for a feature.

Meanwhile, he's eager to see what audiences make of "Summering." Things went well at its world premiere — in Northfield.

"Summering" was at Utah's Sundance Film Festival in January. But when the fest pivoted online because of a COVID surge, wife Lisa Percy rigged up a red carpet and they invited friends to screen it at home, complete with, as Percy says "Champagne and the Champagne of beers, Miller High Life, tucked in a snowbank."

The response was good. More important, Madeline liked it, although Percy joked, "I don't think she's going to be the harshest critic."

Especially since her name is all over the "Summering" credits, at the end of which it says, simply, "Dedicated to Alice and Madeline." 

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