Summer 1996 — I was 15 and spent several days with a childhood friend, Glen, his sister and her friend, and his father at a beach house on the Outer Banks. To this day, I remember the days we spent reading, listening to music, or playing in the ocean; the nights spent hanging out, talking, or lighting fireworks on the moonlit beach. For some reason lost to time, Glen and I would shout “wave!” whenever one would come as we body surfed and swam, perhaps as a way to keep in vocal contact or to try to avoid getting overwhelmed when the waves got high. As the film Over/Under from director Sophia Silver and co-writer Sianni Rosenstock began, I found myself distracted, transported back nearly 26 years as I watched the central characters, Stella and Violet, play in the ocean, calling out “over” and “under” depending on the way they decided to attack the oncoming waves. From the press notes, Silver comments that her film is a personal one, inspired by the friendship she and Rosenstock share, one which she hopes others will connect with as it explores the innocence of childhood, the difficulty of adolescence, and the general complications of growing up. I may not be able to reconcile my own lived experience with that of a 9-13 year-old girl, but Over/Under remains universal in its intimate and raw presentation of turbulence that comes from just trying to exist.
Violet (Emajean Bullock) and Stella (Anastasia Veronica Lee) come to New England with their respective families to get away from their lives in California. Neither child lives in the same city as the other, yet, they’re inseparable from the moment they arrive in New England. Between summer 2002 and 2006, the two girls find their lives and their friendship tested as they battle insecurities, puberty, familial trauma, and time, all the while trying to cling to what they have together, unsure if it’s strong enough to last.
Even if you don’t have the press notes handy upon completion of the film, it’s clear that Over/Under is a personal story for Silver. You can tell this from the respectful and delicate presentation of both Violet and Stella, never judging or shaming when presenting them, together or individually, engaging in everyday public or private activities. There’s a sweetness to the way Silver shows the girls at age 9 gathering moths as part of a wishing game in one scene and showing them shower together in the next. Both highlight the intimacy of the characters to one another, exercises of innocence which are shown as exactly that. Not once degrading the characters in the process. This doesn’t change as the film goes on and we see four sections of regular life and four more sections of summer. With cinematographer Frances Chen (Shiva Baby), each scene is painted with healthy colors: the vibrancy of summer on display in New England, the respective home cities of the girls never diminished either, even when circumstances are disquieting or uncomfortable. In this regard, the cinematography helps ensure a lack of dramatization, a sense of theatrics from invading into a story that’s already full of drama by the sheer nature of growing up and the complications which arise.
What’s most compelling (and what both Bullock and Lee bring to life with seemingly incredible ease) is the lack of external forces propelling the story. There are things happening around Stella and Violet, to their families, and they each have their own challenges to face, but there’s not a single thing that drives Over/Under as one might find in a similar coming-of-age tale. There’s no game to win, no test to prepare for…it’s just life as it happens. It’s how Stella handles being bullied by popular girls and how Violet handles her mother’s illness. It’s how each girl has a different experience with puberty and how the insecurities from that alone can build an invisible wall between two close friends. Until I had children of my own (neither old enough to have anything like these concerns just yet), the presentation of Stella and Violet might’ve seemed a little too distant, a little dissociated from what I remember of my own childhood. The performances from Bullock and Lee, however, brought to mind reactions I’ve seen from my now-almost-seven-year-old when he asks questions about the human body or life in general. There’s a here-but-not-here vibe from him as he’s not quite aware of the pressures which come from growing up. Due to their respective performances, there’s no doubt in the audience that either girl is struggling as they breach the disaffected innocence of girlhood and become young women right in front of us.
My days at the Outer Banks are long passed, but I’ll never forget the smell of the sea air, the heat of the deck upon which we read our books, or the room which we shared at night. My memories are not an exact match for what happened and they don’t need to be. All I need is the essence of what was in order to feel transported back. For roughly 88 minutes, Silver and Rosenstock invite audiences into a memory, their memory, of growing up. It’s not meant to be an exact replica, but a spiritually similar experience. Because of that, even those of us who’ve not shared the events which transpire in the script can still see something of themselves in it. That feeling of closeness with another person, that living-without-judgement feeling that comes from someone not of your blood, and how it all shifts when one of you changes just a little bit. Once that unease creeps in, the comfort’s not gone, per se, but it’s not what it once was. Then again, not all things should remain as they are but should change. Allowing for the possibility to become something new and just as beautiful. This is what Over/Under captures with incredible grace and delicacy.
Screening during the 2022 San Francisco International Film Festival.
For more information, head to the official Over/Under SFFILM film page.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.