AFI Fest Review: ‘SUMMER 1993’- Child’s Play

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

SUMMER 1993

Not Rated, 96 minutes
Directed by: Carla Simón
Starring: Laia ArtigasPaula RoblesBruna Cusí, David Verdaguer, Montse Sanz

Nestled somewhere in the pantheon of films shot from the point of view of their pint-sized protagonists lies writer-director Carla Simón’s SUMMER 1993. Her touching, tender autobiography falls in between the greats like THE 400 BLOWS and PONETTE, yet is completely unique, deeply personal, and bursting with life.

When we first meet her, worried six-year-old Frida (Laia Artigas) clutches her dolls as she watches grown-ups pack up her recently deceased mother’s apartment. Her Uncle Esteve (David Verdaguer), Aunt Marga (Bruna Cusí) and young cousin Anna (Paula Robles) are moving her from Barcelona, to the lush countryside of Catalonia. Though they do everything they can to welcome her and make her feel comfortable, Frida experiences the growing pains of childhood along with the pain of grief. She offers up talismans of appreciation to the Mary statue out back, but to no avail. Her extended family visits her, only it’s difficult to express what she’s feeling because she’s a child and it’s hard to contextualize such adult feelings.

Simón’s rich narrative takes a fly-on-the-wall perspective on the mischievous sprite’s day-to-day emotionality: Frida passive-aggressively engages in authentic temper tantrums, tossing combs out windows and protesting the adult’s decisions. She attempts making new friends, only it doesn’t go swimmingly because of the small-minds in the town. She resists folding into her role in this new family unit, observing over participating.

Laia Artigas and Paula Robles in SUMMER 1993. Courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories.

There are no traditional melodramatic highs and lows to Frida’s arc – nor should there be, as this isn’t that type of movie. The drama is steady. This isn’t to say she doesn’t react with emotionally-charged actions, because she assuredly does. She’s prone to overdramatizing situations too – like when she tells her former nanny Lola (Montse Sanz) that her new family makes her wash all the dishes and clean the entire house. It’s more that this is very true to how a six-year-old would see the world, like if BOYHOOD had lingered longer on the first chapter of that protagonist’s formative childhood experiences. And what this story builds to is a heartrending release unlike any other. You’ll feel it in your chest.

What’s also remarkable about the portrait Simón paints are the capabilities of her youngest stars. It’s astounding how unrehearsed Artigas and Robles are in front of the camera, and how soulful their performances are. Simón also never exploits their skills, turning them into tools to manipulate her audience. Their child’s play is mesmerizing and naturalistic. Artigas’ imitation of an adult, where she complains about being “tired and my body’s sore,” is one of my favorite scenes in any film this year.

When you hear the title, you might think this will be a nostalgia-soaked dip into another era. However, it’s really not. The filmmaker is very careful to craft a sentimental film eschewing schmaltz and sickeningly sweet sentimentality.

Grade: A-

SUMMER 1993 plays AFI Fest on November 11 and 14. It has an early 2018 release planned by Oscilloscope Laboratories.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.