For an uber-specific generation of suburban white girls, picking up a Sarah Dessen novel was once a veritable right of passage. Her effortlessly perfect, fundamentally misunderstood protagonists tended to echo the experiences of countless middle-class young women who identified as academic know-it-alls—but possessed a repressed yet insatiable urge to be romanced by an intriguing, rebellious “other.” This formula is implemented beat-for-beat in Along for the Ride, Dessen’s ninth novel and the most recent to be adapted for the screen. Written and directed by Sofia Alvarez (the screenwriter who adapted Jenny Han’s YA novel To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before for Netflix and co-wrote its sequel), Along for the Ride surely plays the part of a Dessen novel come to life. However, in her directorial debut, Alvarez falters on surface-level technical skill. Despite this, Along for the Ride is a warm cup of duck soup for the former awkward girl’s soul—right down to the mundane mechanics that make a Dessen novel so irresistibly consumable.
Auden (Emma Pasarow) is an academic overachiever who has spent her entire high school career solely focused on university prospects. Now that she’s graduated, she has an entire summer ahead of her before she’s inducted into the next freshman class at the fictitious Defriese University. Having grown up with her intellectual feminist mother (Andie MacDowell) after her parents’ divorce, Auden decides to spend the summer with her father (Dermot Mulroney), his much younger wife Heidi (Kate Bosworth) and her infant half-sister in the seaside town of Colby.
It’s clear that her mother is hostile toward the idea (“She thinks they’re gonna bond,” she scoffs during her women’s wine circle) and it turns out Auden isn’t too confident in the prospect, either. She awkwardly arrives at the house in Colby, shoulders stiff as she enters her father’s study. He asks if she’d like to get lunch; she delights at the idea, then becomes crestfallen when he hands her a crisp $20 bill and asks if she can bring him back a burger from the nearby onion ring joint. Heidi, on the other hand, is peppy and excited by her step-daughter’s arrival—even if the new baby and her novelist husband’s inattention is slowly draining her. She enlists Auden to keep the books at her boardwalk boutique Clementine’s, much to the ire of the local girls who man the register.
On her first night in Colby, Auden makes the mistake of hooking up with “hot tool” Jake (Ricardo Hurtado)—ex-boyfriend of her coworker Maggie (Laura Kariuki) and younger brother of reclusive bike shop employee Eli (Belmont Cameli). Coincidentally, Auden and Eli are fellow insomniacs. They keep running into each other after-hours in Colby—Auden reads on a pier, Eli zooms by on a BMX bike—and the two quickly develop a courtship while the rest of the town sleeps.
Of course, the two fall in love—it’s the Dessen blueprint, after all—but Along for the Ride can’t help but seem like a comparatively sanitized novel of hers to adapt. Particularly in conversation with Desen’s earlier work, Along for the Ride feels tame. The somewhat intense themes of her ‘90s and early ‘00s output—involving teen pregnancy, rape and multifaceted familial trauma—are eschewed here for a milquetoast divorce sub-plot and the passing mention of a local youth’s untimely death. In fact, Along for the Ride, published in 2009, demarcates a palpable shift for Dessen as a writer: In the wake of Obama-era optimism, her protagonists seem to undergo less tumult in general.
Juxtaposing the Along for the Ride adaptation with the 2003 Mandy Moore-starring film How to Deal, which mined Dessen’s first two books Last Summer and Someone Like You, proves this very point. In the latter, there’s teenage sex, death and extramarital affairs. In Along for the Ride, there is no endearing teenage edge, no admirable youthful shortcomings—everyone is already a fully-formed, nearly-ideal version of themselves. Eli is a talented BMX pro. A shopgirl at Clementine’s (Kathy Najimy’s daughter, Samia Finnerty) is a beautiful singer. Even Heidi had a successful career in the Big Apple. There are no hard lessons to be learned, no personal shortcomings to cope with. In this sense, it’s not a genuine coming-of-age film, instead depicting an unattainable teenage ideal that feels phony in its inconsequence.
Alvarez’s Along for the Ride is essentially a time capsule for this very period of idyllic teenage media. This is mostly achieved through the film’s extensive catalog of era-appropriate needledrops, solidly rooted in the year that the novel came out. Girls’ “Lust for Life” (with the f-bomb censored, of course), Santigold’s “I’m a Lady,” No Age’s “Teen Creeps” and a horde of other classics (at least according to this cringe millennial) are constantly employed, clearly a tactic to keep former Dessen-heads comfortably numb with nostalgia. While these songs add a fun touch and evoke the soundtrack of many of our youths, they feel criminally over-used when an equally iconic band of the era is providing the film’s score. During the film’s first precious seconds, the emblematic indie-pop sound of Beach House blasts over Auden’s opening monologue—but their gorgeous melodies are featured less and less prominently as the film continues. As a band that fueled its fair share of late-night bonfire hangs, it’s disappointing that their original music is rejected in favor of generic (and over-played) alt-rock. Clearly, the film was careful to channel their 2008 debut Devotion as opposed to the duo’s most recent effort, Once Twice Melody, never letting the band get too comfortable in their new skin, lest they allow their newfound neo-psychedelia side peek through.
Honestly, though, Along for the Ride is perfectly cozy, in part due to its formulaic nature. It might not be the most visually stunning work—at times, certain shots feel amateurishly disorienting—but it possesses an undeniable artistic heart. While the chemistry between Auden and Eli might not be electric, Pasarow and Kariuki’s frenemy Maggie charm just as well. The film lacks the edge that makes any good coming-of-age flick sizzle—from Juno to Clueless—a sin that’s permissible due to the film’s loving dedication to the source material. With Netflix reported to have picked up three total Dessen novels for adaptation, one can only hope that the next two installments take inspiration from the legendary YA author’s early career.
Writer: Sofia Alvarez
Stars: Emma Pasarow, Belmont Cameli, Kate Bosworth, Dermot Mulroney, Andie MacDowell, Laura Kariuki, Samia Finnerty, Ricardo Hurtado
Release Date: May 6, 2022 (Netflix)
Natalia Keogan is a freelance film writer based in Queens, New York. Her work has been featured in Filmmaker Magazine, Paste Magazine and Blood Knife Magazine, among others. Find her on Twitter @nataliakeogan