Summer 1993 review. With her debut autobiographical feature, Simon delicately crafts a story that’s aglow with truthful love and pain in every frame.
Summer 1993 review by Abi Silverthorne.
There are too many memorable moments in Summer 1993 to try to translate here into words. Memorable, not in the loud, explosive style of a ‘money shot’, (in fact, all but two of the most devastating events in this film happen off-screen) but in the rather spooky sensation that the peculiar, random recollections one might have kept from their own childhood are emanating from the screen before them.
When Frida (Laia Artigas), a six-year-old orphan of the 1981-1997 AIDS crisis that claimed her Mother (and before that, a far-ago Father) is packed away to her Uncle’s small farm-bound family in the height of a blistering summer, all the usual suspects abound. Scraped knees, hosepipes in the heat, nettles creeping at the hem of shorts and melting ice-creams glazing cheeks are all shot with a careful vividness that brings the hyper-sensitivity of clumsy, watchful youth – that time before we learn our manners or our spacial awareness – to life.
Although set in a particular historical hot-point, Simon takes the film to a small and personal place. Frida has no clue about the political circumstances of her Mother’s death or what HIV could mean for her, within her. No one ever tells Frida why her playmates have rushed off the playground away from her when she cuts her leg on the tarmac, or what the doctors’ tests are for. Her religiously rigid grandparents visit her in her new home to remind her to pray for the sins of others and discuss her late Mother’s ‘mistakes’ at the dinner table before taking off and leaving Frida back in the dust. Her innocence makes the truth all that more barbed for us.
Carla’s was, and therefore Frida’s journey is a difficult one. Less precocious that some preadolescent heroes, she is more reticent with her emotions, at first just an elfin face on skinny legs peering blankly up at the world, until the challenges of ‘new’ mother Marga (a mesmerisingly gentle Bruan Cusi) and an earnestly relentless shadow in the form of sweet baby cousin Anna (Paula Robles) draw forth embers of rage and irritability. Before her Mother died she was a slightly spoilt only child, and Frida’s difficult relearning of the world without such a life is rendered gorgeously in one long scene where she and Anna play Mother and Daughter. Frida lounges on a sunbed, glasses and feather scarf firmly on, one leg akimbo, smoking a pretend cigarette, all glamorous repose — Anna plays the role of Frida as per instructed, commanded only one line, to ask her ‘Mother’ to play. “Say it again” Frida encourages until Anna asks over and over, and only then does she lean forward, toy cigarette dangling from her mouth: “of course” she cannot deny her girl anything, they will play.
Such a Madonna shaped hole in Frida’s life leaves much room for insecurity and competitiveness to flood in, and the film is at times almost gut-wrenchingly poignant as we root for the girl throughout her struggles to connect, to coexist with another baby without wanting to squash her underfoot, and to gain the maternal love of another woman without that gain being marred by past loss; to become accepted into a new family before the painful truth that no one discusses finally catches up with her.
The performances of Laia Artigas and Paula Robles, as Frida and Anna respectively, are utterly realistic and without a doubt the soul and centre of the film. Fed their sparse lines during scenes off-camera by Simon, their writer-director has achieved one of the hardest technical tasks one can face – allowing the natural, spontaneous spirit of children to shine through first and foremost whilst still casting naturally gifted actresses with on-screen power. Artigas, in particular, deserves accolades for her wire walk between aloofness and vulnerability, with a knockout ending scene that I defy anyone who has re-remembered a loss with sudden agony not to feel in their bones. Robles is a beautiful character, besotted with her new, cantankerous sister and conveying more easy acceptance towards Frida’s ways in wordless looks than many of the adults manage once throughout the film. Their relationship may be one of the great cinematic love letters to sisters, and siblings.
As proven by recent hits such as Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, some stories, and some social conversations, work magically when told through the perspective of children. Indeed, through the young protagonist’s eyes, the narrative skirts the gravitas of a biological legacy and chooses the purely emotional legacy of losing a parent without ever understanding the immensity and complexity of the culprit. The film is an intelligent and heartrendingly real portrait of a child’s first meeting with grief, and all the other kinds of confusions hurt, and eventually, delights, that all of us have to encounter first once. The first time they disappoint a parental figure, the first time they experience jealousy, the tricks they play for attention without really knowing why. And, finally, and gloriously, the first understanding of what home is. All notions that we cannot fully grasp when small, and that we cannot fully explain as adults, like old scar tissue.
Featuring one of the greatest and most delightful depictions of sisterhood onscreen, Summer 1993 proves Carla Simon as a great filmmaker and one to watch – and her own story one of timeless, lovely power.
Summer 1993 review by Abi Silverthorne, July 2018.
Summer 1993 is released in UK cinemas on Friday 13th July 2018.