I wasn't expecting much from the film Along For the Ride, considering the stream of teen snoozers Netflix has slapped onto its lineup in recent years. I assumed cheap chuckles, uninspired direction and slapdash writing would surely be on the menu, topped with desperate efforts to wedge in some Gen Z lingo. Another boy-meets-Addison Rae cash grab that fails to excite even its target demographic.
But no. Barely two minutes into this film, releasing May 6, I remembered: This is Sofia Alvarez we're dealing with.
Alvarez, the screenwriter behind To All the Boys I've Loved Before, the 2018 high school-set romcom that stunned critics with its superior quality, has struck gold once again -- this time with her directorial debut. Harnessing beloved young adult author Sarah Dessen's 2009 novel as source material, Alvarez's adaptation offers a genuine and refreshing take on the worn-out genre of teens yearning for identity.
After struggling to connect with her peers throughout high school, academic overachiever Auden West foresees the perfect opportunity to reinvent herself when she moves to her divorced father's beach house for one last summer before college. But there in the small town of Colby, Auden's self-discovery unfolds differently than planned, thanks to bickering parents, a gaggle of dancing girls and a solitary dude on a bicycle.
Newcomer Emma Pasarow embodies Auden with captivating sincerity. Her co-star, Belmont Cameli from the Saved By the Bell reboot, returns the favor with a depth that propels his character above the run-of-the-mill teenage male love interest.
But before I keep singing this film's praises, I need to disclose that I can't give it a completely objective review. During college, I was technically … in it.
Let me explain.
One year ago, while dawdling on Facebook instead of studying for my final exams, I spotted a post that made me stop scrolling: a local casting agency needed a bunch of 18- to 22-year-olds near Wilmington, North Carolina, to be extras in a Netflix film shoot coming to town. I went through the grueling audition process: That is, I submitted five photos of myself. Lo and behold, in the middle of finals week, I made my groundbreaking film debut as basically Beach Bash Teen No. 23. If you look reeeeeally closely during the last scene and hit pause right around the 1:40:32 mark, you can spot yours truly in the corner boogie-ing by the pier in Kure Beach, less than a mile from my family's front door. Hollywood Walk of Fame, here I come.
It was far from the first time that a big production had come to my tiny town off the coast of the film hub Wilmington. The stars of Outer Banks,, shot a music video frolicking around the area. This instance, though, I was finally in on the action -- even as I spent the vast majority of the filming day waiting under the tent with the other extras, cracking up at the particularly intense ones as they boasted about their IMDb profiles.
Once in front of the camera, my job was to dance around, eat pizza and sip ginger ale in red Solo cups from a beer keg. And, above all, to avoid looking into the camera.
At one point, they filmed a moment where an actor drops a pizza in the sand and we all react. They had to go through quite a few pizzas to get that sequence just right. Afterward, we were supposed to grab slices from the other pizza boxes and eat them. While on camera, I almost picked up one of the sandy slices by accident, but my partner, also an extra, saved me at the last second by grabbing my hand and pulling me over to dance. As for the other slices (sans sand), they were freezing cold, but they hit the spot after hours of filming.
As we shot a beach party scene over and over, the crew blasted Lust For Life by Girls every time so our dancing would line up with the score. Pitchfork gave the track a glowing review when it came out in 2009, but after hearing the vocalist whine "I wish I had a pizza and a bottle of wine" for the dozenth take, Lust for Life became a curse on our ears. To my horror, I quickly burned through my very limited rotation of dance moves: Any moment, I expected a director to yell, "Cut! Get this one out! She can't dance!" Thankfully, no one called out my reliance on step-touching and bouncing.
We filmed a dance circle where we gathered around and the principal actors took turns grooving in the middle while the camera operator followed them around. It was during this that I glanced over the videographer's shoulder and caught a glimpse of what everything looked like through the viewfinder, and I've got to say, it's incredible how a camera can make a bunch of sweaty teens jumping around look like an artistic scene.
Apart from my fellow extras, I never actually interacted with any of the actors -- that's tacky and very much frowned upon, according to the "How to be a good extra" article I Googled up the night before -- but rumors circulated they were quite kind. I internally geeked out when I recognized one of the supporting actors in the scene, Black-ish star Marcus Scribner, as a voice actor in one of my favorite animated series. Sadly, I didn't encounter Andie MacDowell, Kate Bosworth or Dermot Mulroney, who all did stellar work playing Auden's mother, stepmother and father, respectively.
It was surreal to see my familiar town center flooded with film crew, trailers and equipment. Admittedly, in my head I indulged in that notorious superiority complex the "locals" lord over tourists: "Ha, you newbies are visiting for the first time. Meanwhile, I've hunkered down here during tropical storms, wiped pelican poop off my windshield and hung out with the friendly cat who lurks on the pier."
The extras were finally ushered back onto the bus in the evening. Wiped from our 6:15 a.m. call time, we mumbled the lyrics to the aforementioned Lust for Life earworm and speculated about when the film would surface on Netflix. Having never read the book and not knowing anything about the plot, I had no clue this mysterious Along for the Ride would be any good -- let alone that it would become one of my favorite rom-coms, period.
When I'm watching a film and trying to assess whether it's corny, I try to predict the next line of dialogue. (Yeah, I'm a blast to watch movies with.) Generally, It's easier than you'd think. Not here, though. Just when the screenplay veers close to a tired character trope or predictable plot device, Along For the Ride turns that cliche on its head, showing us that people and their actions are more complex than they appear. There's no central villain to be found; each character is flawed and complicated, ebbing and flowing as they learn more about who they are and what life means.
An average story would have lectured its teen viewers, "Be yourself! Never change!" But Along For the Ride explores a different possibility.
"Life is long, Auden," an unexpected character says. "It'd be pretty boring if we had to stay the same versions of ourselves the whole time, don't you think?"
Maybe I'll quote that line in my acceptance speech for the inevitable Oscar I'll win for my role. In the meantime, wish me luck warding off the paparazzi.