“Along for the Ride,” based on the popular YA romance novel by Sarah Dessen, tells us right from the beginning what we are in for. Auden (played by Emma Pasarow with quiet thoughtfulness) is that serious high school senior who does not go along with the traditional graduation prank, because she believes that “as a transgressive act, it’s faulty.” Not that she has ever done anything transgressive in her life; she’s the quintessential good girl who made the honor role, got a college scholarship, and admits she was “more interested in working hard so the rest of my life could be great.”
Auden wonders, with the summer ahead of her, whether now could be the time to see if she can get the great part started. She has decided to stay with her father and stepmother, who live in a beach town called Colby. At home, she says, she only knows how to be one kind of person. “Maybe if I go to Colby, I can be somebody else.”
If you hope that instead she will have to be more authentically herself and that she will find some help in that from a handsome teen boy, accompanied by frequent micro-doses of what the closed captions call “melodic indie music,” you’ve come to the right place. If you want more than the first verse of a song, maybe not.
At first, Auden acts like it is Opposite Day, not thinking about what she wants, just whatever she has not done before. But then she meets the play-by-the-rules good girl’s equivalent of the legendary “manic pixie dream girl,” which I will deem the “soulful faun dream boy.” That is Eli (Belmont Cameli, in a role designed to be somewhere between John Cusack of “Say Anything,” Heath Ledger in “10 Things I Hate About You,” and Moondoggie in “Gidget”). He offers to take her on a “quest” to catch up on all the silly fun her serious mother thought was a waste of time. He’s a bit of a loner, so she can reunite him with his friends. He is sad, and she can get him to talk about it. And they give each other a chance to tell some stories and acknowledge some truths they have not even admitted to themselves.
The movie gets a boost from Andie MacDowell as Auden’s mother, who shows up at the pastel-and-seashell beach community in very soigné black. MacDowell gives just the right, slightly brittle bite to lines like, “You’ll have to forgive me if I find it alarming how easily you’ve adapted to the world of your father’s new wife,” still making it clear to us, if not Auden, that it is less from snobbery than fear of losing her daughter as she leaves home for college.
Dessen, who also co-scripted with director Sofia Alvarez, shows us that it’s not just Eli who makes the difference for Auden. Some of the movie’s best scenes are about Auden’s developing friendship with the other girls who work at her stepmother’s boutique, played by Genevieve Hannelius, Laura Kariuki, and Samia Finnerty. Thankfully, while there are a few awkward adjustment moments, Dessen gracefully bypasses the too-frequent plot lines about mean girls or misunderstandings, and it is heartening to see smart, confident young women supporting each other—and enjoying goofy dance breaks. She also offers us a sense of community, connection, and tradition reminiscent of “Gilmore Girls’” Stars Hollow, and touches on the challenges and importance of helping and asking for help. Most important, Auden shows us that opening herself up to understanding her own feelings and taking risks gives her new insights about those around her, especially her parents and stepmother. She comes away not as somebody else but as a truer version of herself. There may be nothing new in the message but that does not mean we don’t need to hear it.