It’s 1997, and 12 year old Grace (Niamh Walter) is joining her friend Asta (Nyobi Hendry) and Asta’s mother Kate (Rebecca Palmer) on a summer holiday to Cornwall. On the cusp of adolescence, Grace and Asta often play like children, but Grace in particular seems to want to move beyond more childish things. Meanwhile, Kate takes in a younger man named Sid (Zaqui Ismail), who had been sleeping in the woods.

At the heart of Summer in the Shade is a relatively simple coming of age story, much of it centred on Grace’s clear admiration for Kate. At various moments we see Grace surreptitiously observing the older woman, and especially her growing flirtation with Sid, but the major visualisation of this theme comes late on when, after an argument with Asta, Grace puts on some of Kate’s red lipstick, takes her case of cigarettes (or joints?) and walks to the local village. There, one of the local lads, who previously flirted with Kate, takes Grace for older than her years (not, perhaps, old enough, but old enough that he doesn’t feel there’s a problem) and offers to buy her a drink. As with other moments in which the girls are eager to grow up though, there is something pulling Grace back from embracing even the play acting of this adult role, which feels uncomfortable on her for the entirety of this, the film’s standout sequence.

That sequence boils down a lot of the film’s best aspects, from the ambiguity about Grace’s attitude to growing up to Naimh Walter’s performance. Walter’s most notable previous credit is as the young Jessica Chastain in The Huntsman: Winter’s War, but this should bring her a lot more work. Walter and Nyobi Hendry create a believable dynamic as 11 and 12 year old best friends. Sequences of them building a den in the woods show the playful and childish side of them, indulging fantasies of fairies. These moments also demonstrate the best of the cinematography. The film often has a gauzy and nostalgic look at the house and in the woods, but it turns a little starker when Grace walks into the village, and as the film darkens towards the end. Given the thoughtful visuals, it’s no surprise to me that director Alice Millar is also a DP, though Benjamin J Murray handles those duties here.

Summer in the ShadeThe downside of Summer in the Shade is that it’s very much a debut, for both Millar and screenwriter Isobel Boyce. They try to do a lot in about 80 minutes pre credits, and that means that much is short changed. This is felt most strongly in the darker aspects of the film. From the start, it hints at a (pretty obvious) secret that Grace is holding, but this never comes to the surface, it’s never really paid off at all, except perhaps in Grace’s ability to finally get a bad read from that local boy. The film also drops a few hints at a folk horror undertone. A tarot reading sequence is set up fairly intriguingly, but appears to end halfway through the scene, and a weird symbol drawn on the girls’ bedroom wall is mentioned twice, but again never serves much purpose. These things, and one of the final sequences, which also threatens to lean into horror, feel like they should be part of a larger story, but only breadcrumbs remain to track it.

Similarly, while Zaqui Ismail gives a good performance as Sid, I never felt the film quite got a handle on his purpose. There is menace when he first appears. I think the way Grace is initially wary but warms to him might be tied to her secret making her slow to trust adult men full stop, but again because that element is underdeveloped, it never quite pays off. Nyobi Hendry often comes off a little flat next to Walter. I believe their friendship, and the petty arguments and quick make ups, but Hendry just has less complexity to play.

It’s not often I want a film to be longer, but Summer in the Shade feels like it needs to stretch its legs a little, to allow its themes to fully develop and its various elements to join up, where now they sit a little awkwardly against each other. There is promise here, and I’ll look for Alice Millar’s next film, but this one doesn’t quite work.