The longing to reinvent yourself is hardly unique to Along for the Ride, based on Sarah Dessen’s novel of the same name. It is also not unique to protagonist Auden (Emma Pasarow), an insomniac teenager who decides to spend her last summer before college doing all the things she never knew that she wanted to do. As teenage dramas go, it hits familiar beats, never descending into the outright passion and freedom that its main character clearly wants. However, writer-director Sofia Alvarez still manages to conjure some nice moments that are just about worth the running time.
Auden travels to the seaside town of Colby in the hope of changing up her personality for the better, and reconnect with her father (Dermot Mulroney). Things predictably get off to a somewhat awkward start, especially her relationship with Maggie (Laura Kariuki) and the other girls Auden works with in her stepmother’s boutique. Things improve when she meets the reclusive Eli (Belmont Cameli), another insomniac who encourages Auden to be more adventurous and try new things that her no-nonsense mother (Andie MacDowell) won’t allow her to do.
From the earliest moments, Alvarez opts for an understated mysticism to her story, a story that seemingly sees all conflict fizzle out in a pleasant, agreeable manner as it progresses. It’s not boring exactly, but familiar; the steps that Along for the Ride takes are well trodden. What does feel more unique is the presentation, which lends an otherworldly, magical quality to even the most mundane of Colby’s sights. Alvarez’s use of outdoor lighting in particular is eye-catching, saturating every otherwise dark scene in a plethora of gentle colours that illuminate Auden’s journey towards change. Even better are the moments where Alvarez blends this touch of magic with the more mundane but significant moments of teenage life. A karaoke car ride to a house party, while lasting mere minutes and being of limited significance, nonetheless stands out as one of the film’s most memorable moments.
Less interesting unfortunately, is the dynamic between Auden and Eli. Neither Pasarow or Cameli do much wrong individually, but they just don’t gel in the way that the story wants them to. The former captures all too common yearns for independence and change with a believable, natural charm, but her performance still feels too reserved for someone supposedly coming out of their shell. The result is a relationship that doesn’t feel as important as it is on paper. While Eli is trying to help Auden change, her newfound friends Maggie, Leah (Genevieve Hannelius), and Esther (Samia) are happy with her just the way she is. Perhaps for that reason, with Pasarow able to lean more comfortably into Auden’s awkwardness instead of trying to fight against it, the girls’ dynamic is more entertaining and engaging.
Along for the Ride turns on the charm at just the right time. The way Eli’s downbeat arrival at a party descends into a maddening food fight within minutes is very funny, and Auden’s growing bond with her fellow boutique workers is a sweet side plot. All of this fun doesn’t feel at odds with Auden’s ongoing difficulties with her parents, which are revealed to cause her insomnia. Kate Bosworth’s performance as stepmother Heidi is the strongest turn in the film, with Bosworth making what could have been an irritating side character into someone you really root for. If you are able to look beyond the mismatched central pairing, Along for the Ride has some real gems hidden beneath the surface.
Alvarez’s film can’t quite capture the feverish energy or heart of the best teen dramas, those films that have a riveting relationship at their core. Eli and Auden are just played as too incompatible, and aside from a few brief moments (such as their first kiss amidst the waves of a midnight swim, captured with gentle intimacy using handheld cameras) they never feel right. Beyond the central pair however, there is plenty to enjoy, not least how Alvarez dresses the story up so nicely to create an at times cosy, almost hypnotic aesthetic. Along for the Ride is imperfect and makes mistakes… but such is the way of teenage life.
Along for the Ride is out on Netflix now.