“It’s a deeply empathetic work, using the directness of a child’s worldview to create a wholly uncluttered snapshot.”
by Ken Bakely
With its hazy lull and largely structureless style, Carla Simón’s Summer 1993 invokes the broad implications of its simple title. An engaging and thoughtful portrait of a child’s overwhelmed perspective and inability to fully understand grief, the film uses locational changes to underscore seismic events. Scenes pass by as faded memories; centered around one event, starting in the middle and ending there, too. As its main character, six year old Frida (Laia Artigas), gets moved from a busy Barcelona neighborhood to the rustic country home of her Aunt Marga (Bruna Casí) and Uncle Esteve (David Verdaguer), Simón purposefully keeps us in the dark about what’s happened to the girl’s parents. Everything in the movie comes from Frida’s view. Overheard conversations between adults, what with their unfinished sentences and vague hinting, are only apparent to us because we are adults.
The truth is that both of Frida’s parents died from AIDS-related illnesses. It’s why paranoid parents in this rural community won’t let the other kids play with her, and why she always has to go to the doctor for the latest in a never-ending series of examinations. To Frida, it’s all bewildering and unprocessable, and Simón, working from autobiographical roots in her feature debut, is a natural with this spare, near-minimalist approach; always present but not pushy. Frida has understandable difficulty adjusting to her new setting, and Marga and Esteve are overwhelmed at having to raise another child (they already have a young daughter). Summer 1993 depicts transitory moments in the lives of every character as they seek to define their new needs, routines, and relationships. The children can’t verbalize these burdens, but there’s no question that the film depicts their own journeys with complete sincerity. It’s a deeply empathetic work, using the directness of a child’s worldview to create a wholly uncluttered snapshot.
It’s to Simón’s credit as a storyteller that she can bring forth such complex, accessible results from an inherently personal place. Summer 1993 always feels like a living, breathing piece of introspective art, rather than a filmed memoir. It would be impossible for her to remove herself from her connection to the story, but she uses it to a distinct advantage. Where other filmmakers would anchor themselves in a single perspective and timeframe for decidedly past tense outcomes, she engineers a world in motion. Though the central conceit of the movie is that most things are happening outside of Frida’s full grasp, they’re still intrinsically relevant to how the viewer comes to see her. To that end, scenes that leave us holding our breath out of fear that youthful impulsivity will lead to disaster are averted of any climactic value, thus also suggesting a certain liminality between our subjective inferences and the film’s more objective observations.
That’s about where the movie ends up – a fuzzy, vaguely warm, vaguely distant experience that deconstructs the straightforward nostalgia of other autobiographical tales about childhood. It works with memory’s imperfections and forms a constructive thesis about not only its immediate subject matter, but the very idea of recalling what it’s like to be young. A solid performance from Laia Artigas in the lead role keeps the movie’s emotional core in place, even when Summer 1993 is at its most abstractly plotted. Of course, for very young actors, such accomplishments are largely attributable to the director’s guidance, even more than their adult counterparts. To be sure, Simón focuses her camera on simple acts of movement and reaction, juxtaposed against the complex internal politics of Frida’s aunt and uncle as they struggle to integrate their niece under such sudden and tragic circumstances. From there, conflicts emerge, but as with the rest of the film, they’re presented in a way that’s wholly naturalistic. Summer 1993 proves compelling because of its careful emulation of life’s rhythms, instead of some external, manufactured attempt at creating a neat story structure where none would work.