If you’re a fan of coming-of-age stories and you like your romances without the usual mountains of misogyny then you should probably hop on board for Along for the Ride. No, it’s not as winsome as To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, to which it will inevitably be compared because Sofia Alvarez is the screenwriter for both. And yes, there are bumps in the road—some characters remain superficial, gnarly problems are resolved too easily—but it’s still enjoyable, and the way it gently twists some of the usual gender tropes is refreshing.
(As always, I won’t entertain any arguments about whether it’s good or bad based on how predictable someone finds the ending. If that’s your criteria for rating romance movies you may need to find yourself a new genre.)
Auden (Emma Pasarow)—who, yes, of course, is named after the poet because her parents are academics—can’t help pointing out to her classmates that the senior class breaking into bell tower at their fancy school every year isn’t a prank because it’s “essentially school-sanctioned…which is fine for a tradition. But, like, as a transgressive act, it’s faulty.” Some random girl finds this super offensive so Auden JUST GOES HOME even though she’s dying to join in, which makes very little sense even in high school logic. This is a pattern with Auden and the reason she’s spent high school a friendless outcast who hasn’t done any of the usual stuff and instead sits at home with her mother’s academic friends. Admittedly, this is confusing. Auden is a bookish, awkward, high achieving student at an elite prep school who thinks about things analytically and isn’t into frilly fashion. I mean, it’s just not THAT out there, and it’s hard to imagine a world where she wouldn’t have at least a few friends. But she doesn’t. Later, someone points out that there were kids WAY more awkward than Auden in high school and even they had friends, which is a really good point. Shouldn’t there at least be an awkward boy who has been her best friend since birth? Or a rebellious girl who teaches her about all the mundane, pedestrian things her parents think are beneath them?
Because of all this, Auden wants to reinvent herself before she goes off college—a relatable feeling—which is why she’s spending the summer in Colby, a small beach town, living with her father (Dermot Mulroney) and working at her Stepmother Heidi’s (Kate Bosworth) store. Her mother, Victoria (Andie MacDowell), a feminist academic who raised Auden mostly alone, is scornful of the idea, haughtily pointing out that Auden could have been her research assistant, derisively calling the store “Cupcake Glitter Breast Implants,” and outright laughing at the idea that Auden might bond with her father. So, she seems like a whole bowlful of healthy parenting with a nice sprinkling of late-90s early-2000s ideas about women!
Victoria is dead wrong in her approach—I do hope these people have a slush fund for Auden’s future therapy needs—but certainly right that everything is not sunshine and rainbows in Colby. For all her excited for voicemails, Heidi, who outwardly fits the younger, perkier, blonder, yogaier second wife stereotype, is ostensibly single parenting their newborn daughter Thisbe (yes, really) while Auden’s father shuts himself away to write a book, and nothing about it is easy. (The portrayal of her desperation and his nonchalant absence is nauseatingly accurate.)
In her effort to reinvent herself as quickly as possible, Auden goes to The Tip, a party spot on the beach, and ends up making out with Jake (Ricardo Hurtado), an attractive but otherwise awful guy. She quickly realizes her mistake, but not before being spotted by his still grieving ex-girlfriend Maggie (Laura Kariuki), who, along with her friends Leah (Genevieve Hannelius) and Esther (Samia Finnerty), will be Auden’s more sociable and fashionable co-workers at Heidi’s store. Whoopsy! How super duper awkward!
Auden also has insomnia and, because this is that kind of movie, she goes to the pier to read Secrets of the Flesh in what appears to be the ABSOLUTE WORST LIGHTING while sitting on a horribly uncomfortable looking bench. Why would she do this when her father’s house has a perfectly good deck? Obviously, so that she can meet the also insomniatic Eli (Belmont Cameli), an Emotionally Unavailable ™ twenty-year-old with floppy, curly hair that’s just long enough that he constantly has to push it out of his eyes. A now retired BMX biker with a Tragic and Mysterious Past who appears one night out of the mist, Eli first takes Auden to a secret pie shop and then, after learning she has never played Connect Four, decides they should go on a summer-long quest to accomplish all the things she missed out on during her childhood spent being a grownup—trespassing, night swimming, food fighting, mini golfing, and, though it’s not list, eventually kissing. He feels like all your somewhat antisocial bad boy dreams, wrapped up in an earnest, kind, caring, well-meaning guy, nursing a broken heart. I’m not complaining.
What I liked a lot about the movie, and why I’m willing to forgive its foibles, is the way it set things up so that it looks like we are going see Auden encounter the expected things—like Mean Girl Coworkers, the Antisocial Boy who teaches her everything, and, to a lesser degree, the Overbearing Mother against whom Auden must rebel and the Well-Meaning but Clueless Perky Stepmother. But instead, the movie gives us acceptance, inclusivity, friendship, and understanding. The sigh of relief that breathed when I realized that movie meant to celebrate the ways in which Maggie, Esther, Leah, and Auden were different, but could still share a loving, supportive friendship was deep and profound. And I really loved the way it succinctly undermined Victoria’s assertion that Auden’s incoming classmates at Defriese University were not spending their summers “hawking thongs and doing keg stands,” which I can’t explain further without spoilers.
It’s unfortunate that the adult relationships were not handled quite so well. So much of the movie is spent with Auden’s father being frustratingly absent and dismissive. Her stepmother is trying desperately to keep up a good front, but she’s overwhelmed and sinking fast. All of her pleas for help go ignored or are flatly denied. It’s physically painful to watch, especially when Auden’s father says things like, “as far as I can tell, all women go nuts with a newborn,” which isn’t even the worst thing he says. Later he outright blames Heidi for their problems and says that he probably just wasn’t meant to be a father. So I was practically livid when the solution to all this was tied up neatly with a bow, and Heidi getting to go to one 75-minute yoga class by herself. It’s going to take a fuck of a lot more than that for him to break his pattern of patriarchal fuckwittery when it comes to the division of domestic labor, and to imply otherwise is borderline reprehensible. The same is true when it comes to Auden and Victoria repairing their relationship, which is done in one quick conversation on the beach. It’s as if the waves can wipe away what appear to be decades of trauma endured from both her parents. I’m just not buying it. I did, however, greatly appreciate how Victoria and Heidi move from opposite ends of a spectrum to find common ground in how the patriarchy screws over mothers. And what Victoria is saying to Auden is also important in how it realigns our understanding of her character, but there’s a lot of glossing over of a lot of deeply cutting years-long trauma.
But then there is the relationship between Auden and Eli, which, again, made me willing to, if not overlook, at least live with these aspects. I breathed another sigh of relief when I realized that this was going to be about them both working toward independence, rather than him showing her how to be free and her helping him feel things again, which is the usual gender split. Also, the romance between them is tender and slow as they run and laugh and talk through the night, their hands and faces moving closer together before something breaks the tension. Their first kiss is after they have run into the ocean with their friends at night. The camera cuts back and forth between them—a silent bubble of two moving away from the shore as they draw closer to each other—and the crowd of their friends, rowdy, jumping, colorful, chaotic, and unfocused. Eli and Auden’s lips meet in the moment that a light behind them flares, so the kiss is almost subsumed by the glare. For a few moments it is just the two of them, entangled and lost. And then their friends closer to the shore focus on them and whoop and cheer in delight, raising their arms in victory and happiness. Auden and Eli turn around, laughing and smiling, to bask for a moment in the limelight, before returning to each other. And really, that sums up what’s appealing about Along for the Ride: that ebb and flow between blooming first love and the growing bonds of friendship.