LFF 2017: Summer 1993 Review
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Throughout Summer 1993 (Estiu 1993) we often find ourselves placed right alongside Frida (Laia Artigas), the young child at the centre of Carla Simón’s story. The camera sits at her level, her point-of-view becoming ours and letting us see the world as she sees it – a world that has become a confusing mess for the 6-year-old when we first meet her.
An autobiographical film from writer-director Simón, this is a beautifully poignant tale that follows Frida as she begins a new life with her aunt and uncle, a choice we soon find out hasn’t been hers to make. She quietly adjusts to this change, struggling with different routines and trying to connect with this new family, all the while attempting to process her feelings about the circumstances that have made her life so suddenly different. Indeed, it is the reason behind this change that gives Summer 1993 its astounding emotional impact, which at its heart is an effective look at a child’s experience of grief: the confusion, the hurt, and the unbelievable loss that is inevitably felt.
That these experiences are based on real life is starkly, impressively obvious. Each scene seems rooted in memory, whether it be a moment where Frida hides under the table as the adults talk openly about what to do with her, or a joyful one of her and her cousin Anna (Paula Robles) dancing away to music. This bold realism is not only absorbing to watch, but also lends the whole film a deep sense of nostalgia, particularly for childhood. Even if we can’t relate to the darker memories of Simón’s story, everyone has experienced the endless summer days that lie ahead for Frida, nothing to fill them with except fun and exploring. After all, Simón knows that a child doesn’t stop being a child, even under harrowing circumstances.
These scenes of play make up the bulk of Summer 1993, and as such the film relies heavily on the two main child performances at the centre of the narrative. Yet Simón has coaxed incredible turns from Laia Artigas and Paula Robles simply by allowing them to play while the story goes on around them, the camera following their natural reactions to the environment rather than dictating what they do. A bathtub offers impossible depths for diving, a bed the best place to bounce, and a game of dress-up involves creating their own extravagant make-believe restaurant. However, it is this particular moment that also morphs into an impossibly sad mirroring of Frida’s life before she joined this new family, her play-acting and talk of being so “tired” revealing more than she realises, and being our first real hint of what might have happened to her.
Simón and co-writer Valentina Viso scatter touches like this throughout, gently allowing the harsh reality of Frida’s situation to slowly come to light. Yet we often only gain this information through snippets of conversation, the adults talking in the background while we only catch what Frida overhears. This, along with Santiago Racaj’s impressive camerawork, means we become a direct part of Frida’s experience and the rollercoaster of emotions she goes through, especially her growing frustration at not being able to fully fit in with this other family. Laia Artigas’ performance is astounding in these poignant moments, her quiet portrayal able to speak volumes even when she doesn’t. Her eyes dart about as she tries to comprehend all her feelings and everything that is beyond her control, anger often brewing there as she is struck by how unfair the world sometimes is. A scene of her calling her old house is particularly telling without any need for dialogue. Frida knows it is empty, but we see the hope on her face as she dials – something that slowly begins to melt away when no one picks up. It is a performance so natural that it is easy to get lost in, and as such makes the more hard-hitting incidents of Simón’s film difficult to recover from.
However, despite this prominent point-of-view throughout, Simón is careful to ensure her story isn’t completely one-sided, giving it necessary depth by also focusing on the family themselves and how they are affected. While Anna (who is as cute as a button in every scene) is happy to have an older sibling to look up to, Marga (Bruna Cusí) resents becoming a mother figure to Frida when she already has a daughter to take care of. Even Frida’s uncle (David Verdaguer), who tries to keep an open mind about it all, finds himself struggling when he sees his family suffering because of Frida’s more extreme behaviour. It is this multi-layered narrative and also Cusí and Verdaguer’s compelling, authentic performances that prevent these characters from becoming mere caricatures, and which keeps the realism of Simón’s complex world intact.
Simón builds her narrative to a stunningly sad yet beautiful ending that will leave your heart in your throat – another moment that tells us a million things without actually saying anything. Laia Artigas and Paula Robles are absolutely adorable, their natural performances and Simón’s ability to film them with minimal interference lending Summer 1993 the feeling of watching a home video coming to living breathing life. It is rare to see a film so flawless from start to finish, but Simón has achieved this with ease while still managing to expertly portray complex ideas of loss and grief from a child’s perspective. As such it can often be harrowing to watch, yet the joy and nostalgia felt throughout is so wonderful that you will never want it to end.