REVIEW: Netflix’s ‘Along for the Ride’ brings young adult themes and vivid imagery to Wilmington

Boyce Rucker, Staff Writer

This review is from an early premiere screening of “Along for the Ride.” The film will officially be released on Netflix on May 6, 2022.

“Along For The Ride” adapts novelist Sarah Dessen’s young adult book of the same name. The film is a romantic drama that revolves around themes of self-acceptance and personal freedom. Two teenagers at pivotal points in their lives find harmony with one another as they try to move beyond the past and carve a path for the future in a beach town. Shot in East Coast areas including Wilmington, Carolina Beach and Oak Island, the film pairs coastal North Carolina’s exotic locale with intimate characters in a story about personal growth.

Right before her first year at college, Auden West (Emma Pasarow) visits the beach town Colby to spend the summer with her father Robert (Dermot Mulroney) and step-mother Heidi (Kate Bosworth). Auden’s sleepless nights in the new town lead to her meeting with fellow insomniac Eli (Belmont Cameli). The two forge a strong bond with each other that brings Auden closer to living the carefree life she never had as a teenager due to her parents’ divorce.

Director Sofia Alvarez, whose writing credits include the popular Netflix YA drama “To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before,” adapts the qualities that make Dessen’s novel an engaging read. Dessen’s books make the main characters feel relatable and imperfect as they undergo changes throughout the story. However, Dessen’s novels never make it seem like the protagonist’s quirks are a bad thing. 

The film treats characters like Auden and Eli with the same sincerity, making them feel human rather than bland charicatures we’ve seen several times before. Auden and Eli’s relationship is an intersection point for growth as much as it is a romantic one. While Eli helps Auden discover freedom and develop an outgoing nature, Auden helps Eli overcome the grief that burdens him and makes him an outcast from the teen social circle. There’s a humane and fascinating story at the forefront.

The film is a lighthearted and optimistic coming-of-age story about personal freedom. As we follow Auden’s story, she increasingly immerses herself in the teen lifestyle that she’s been longing for. She breaks out of her comfort zone as she attends beach parties and befriends the co-workers at her step-mother’s store. Auden’s inexperienced lifestyle is a result of her parents’ divorce at a young age, causing her to fall into a reserved role under her mother’s custody. Her relationship with her parents is also somewhat strained due to her father’s preoccupation with his work and her mother’s high expectations. She particularly struggles to live up to the academic expectations of her successful mother Victoria (Andie McDowell), hence her eagerness to be more explorative. 

Whereas any other young adult story might simply follow a teen trying to get into the cool crowd, “Along for the Ride” tells a story about individuality and not having to rely on others’ expectations or the burdens of guilt. These are themes that any high school or college student can empathize with or connect to. Some YA stories recycle contrived takes on teenage staples, like dating and conflict. The film does not further toxicity or make the characters seem abnormal for their own grievances. Rather, it demonstrates that their betterment is a process and something they have to work towards, adding a human element to the mix. The film treats us to a wholesome story that stands out for its relatable themes and characters, right next to the film’s lush North Carolina scenery.    

The film’s outstanding and colorful cinematography brings lively energy to each scene. A vibrant color palette and expansive landscape shots highlight the set locations to give them a vivid feel. Some locations will seem familiar to viewers who live in the coastal North Carolina region. Most of the film was shot in Carolina Beach, and several local businesses feature in select scenes. The Carolina Beach boardwalk appears as the setting for Auden and Eli’s nighttime meetings, with its light posts adding incredible ambiance to the scenes. The film captures the authenticity that we associate with the beach town setting in Wilmington, North Carolina while introducing us to a stunning pair of characters. The film captures nearly every scene between Auden and Eli with a vibrant essence that adds whimsy to every interaction between the two. The visuals add as much distinctiveness to the film as the two lead stars do. 

The lead performers compliment the film and add depth to the characters, bringing strong quality to the Dessen adaptation. Newcomer Pasarow perfectly conveys Auden’s insecurities and makes her into a relatable character. Auden’s social awkwardness and aloofness to teen norms entertains while making us want to see her break out of her comfort zone. Her gradual growth throughout the film from a wallflower to an adventurous teen strengthens our connection to the character. Pasarow portrays Auden’s development with finesse as we see her grow from a shy teenager to a confident and fun-loving person. 

Cameli puts in just as much effort as Pasarow when portraying Eli. Rather than playing Eli as the typical teenage heartthrob, Capelli injects depth that displays the character’s insecurities. As Eli grieves over a friend’s death, we see a young man whose life is at a standstill until he meets Auden. Pasarow and Cameli’s chemistry keeps us watching and convinces us that these are human characters who want the best out of life.

“Along For The Ride” is a heartfelt adaptation of Dessen’s novel that pulls at our heartstrings to tell a passionate coming-of-age story about spiritual independence. Wilmington and its sibling towns help bring the film’s setting to life while capturing lighthearted teen culture. The film is one of the better YA films in recent memory and one that paints a vivid picture of North Carolina.