I can’t quite remember when I first read Sarah Dessen’s 2009 book, “Along for the Ride.” It was years ago — maybe in the summer. The details escape me now, but I do remember that I devoured the novel. It was a perfect young adult romance novel: It had the summer setting, the shenanigans and hijinks that you only ever find within the pages of the best works of fiction and a couple that I remember comparing all other young adult romance couples to. Auden and Eli stole my heart the first time I read that book, and upon every reread, I fall back in love with them.
While I don’t remember much about that first time reading “Along for the Ride,” I do distinctly remember putting down the book after I had read the last page and thinking, this needs to be a movie. And after years and years of waiting, it seems that the universe finally listened to me.
The book — and Netflix’s new adaptation — follows Auden and Eli, two insomniacs who meet in the beach town of Colby when Auden comes to visit her father and stepmother for the summer. The two become fast friends, eating pie and working on Auden’s “quest” for a normal childhood under the cover of night. Eventually, of course, they fall hard for one another. They’re both dealing with their respective trauma — Auden still hasn’t fully recovered from her parents’ divorce, and Eli is haunted by the memory of a friend that passed away. They lean on each other, and while their relationship isn’t perfect and certainly faces its ups and downs, they help each other heal. The story is typical for a romantic comedy, but the characters’ quirks, the picturesque setting and the unique inclusion of BMX riding make this story a little different from the others.
A friend of mine told me that Netflix is reviving the teen rom-com genre, and there is no better evidence for that point than their adaptation of “Along for the Ride.” The movie follows the book to the T — the way every good book-to-movie adaptation should. There were certainly a few changes and omissions in terms of plot, but nothing felt like it was missing. Every important moment from the book played out on screen, with dialogue taken straight from Sarah Dessen’s pages. It was what my younger self had always wanted for this beloved book.
Emma Pasarow (“Touch”) and Belmont Cameli (“The Husband”) fit Auden and Eli’s characters perfectly. Pasarow masterfully balances Auden’s shyness and sense of adventure, and Cameli captures the youthful effervescence of Eli’s character. These young actors, alongside the more minor characters like Laura Kariuki’s (“Black Lightning”) Maggie, do an incredible job in this film. They seem real in a way that most rom-com characters do not. Auden’s parents, Victoria and Robert, are played by Hollywood legends Andie MacDowell (“Groundhog Day”) and Dermot Mulroney (“My Best Friend’s Wedding”), and the combination of newbie actors playing the young talent and older, wiser actors portraying the adults on-screen matches the tone of the story and characters well.
Most people choose to focus on acting or storytelling or even romantic chemistry when considering a romance film, but to leave out praise of its camerawork would be to omit something really special in this film. Auden and Eli are insomniacs; they meet at night. That means that the filmmakers had to be creative in lighting up the screen in other ways. In nearly every shot, you get some interesting lighting: fairy lights, streetlights, fireworks, a lighthouse and even the moon. These moments are the most beautiful. You see something different when the two characters look at each other in the dim lighting of a laundromat than you would if they just saw each other on the street in the early afternoon sun. There’s an almost tangible quality to those hidden, secret moments.
But what makes “Along for the Ride” such a resounding success isn’t its dedication to staying true to the novel’s format or its talented cast or even its aesthetic imagery with beautiful lighting and carefully chosen colors. It is the film’s sense of nostalgia that makes it lovely. Not just because the story reminds me of that hazy memory of picking up the book for the first time, but because it’s a pure and simple love story playing out on screen, similar to the movies you could find on TV in the 2000s, when the book was first released.
In a way, it brings you back to a simpler time.
Netflix is slated to adapt two of Dessen’s other novels, “Once and For All” and “This Lullaby,” in the near future. If they’re anything like “Along for the Ride,” I think viewers will be thrilled.
It’s not often you get to see an old favorite book turned into a modern film in such a seamless, natural way. There’s always a hint of fear that something essential will be lost in the adaptation. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case for “Along for the Ride.”
Daily Arts Writer Sabriya Imami can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.