For most films seeking a mass audience, the best we can hope for is that they leave some time for reflection amid the whizzes and bangs, the laugh lines and shock cuts. Catalan director Carla Simón’s Summer 1993 is all reflection, a childhood memory film as vividly realized as Carlos Saura’s Cria Cuervos!, but with a style and circumspection that are all Simón’s own.
This clear-eyed debut feature, a lovely amble about change, family and mourning, won’t secure that mass audience, even if its themes will resonate with anyone who has ever felt displaced. Straddling the nexus of approachable and radical, simple and complex, Summer 1993 moves not with the plot-driven momentum of traditional narrative features but with the unhurried tempo of its titular season. I never thought I’d say this, but by all means, watch it on a tablet while lounging on a hammock on a lazy Sunday.
We first meet Frida (Laia Artigas), a child of no more than 8, watching with trademark ambivalence as her extended family members pack away her belongings in boxes. It’s a time of fireworks and revelry in Barcelona, but Frida has little to celebrate: Her mother has just died, a victim of Spain’s epidemic of drug-related AIDS. Thanks to a stipulation in her mother’s will, Frida is soon to be spirited away to the Catalan countryside to live with her aunt and uncle, Marga and Esteve (Bruna Cusi and David Verdaguer), who have a young child of their own, Anna (Paula Robles).
With its garden and henhouse, its communal meals and evenings filled with live music, Frida’s new environment is a far cry from the urban bustle of her mother’s home. She explores this territory with timid hesitance, then small acts of rebellion, like the impetuous provocation of tossing a comb out a car window. As with many a younger sister, Anna becomes a rival and nuisance to the older girl, and their petty clashes for dominance and parental approval could fill pages of child-psychology textbooks.
Inspired by Simon’s own relocation, as a young child, to Catalonia after the death of her mother, Summer 1993 is a memoir whose wisdom of hindsight doesn’t smooth over her young avatar’s flaws, or over-intellectualize her actions. Frida is a manipulator who seems to take secretive satisfaction, if not delight, in the misbehavior she fosters in Anna, but Simón judges no one. Shot almost entirely from Frida’s vertically challenged vantage, the movie is infused with the sensation of a child just being, lending the project the texture of an ethnographic documentary — a meandering voyage of discovery for everyone involved.
This includes Marga and Esteve, first gamely and then compassionately taking on another family member who isn’t used to their self-reliant lifestyle. Marga, in particular, pushes Frida in ways the child’s parents never did, from tying her own shoelaces to completing family chores. Simón presents the contrast between this approach and Frida’s hovering — some would say coddling — grandparents, who attempt to wrest control of Frida’s upbringing during their visits to the farmhouse. Thus, Summer 1993 weighs the value of free-range vs. helicopter parenting, but utterly without didacticism.
With child performances, it’s difficult to say if Laia Artigas is a star in the making, but her understanding of Frida’s complicated emotional canvas is a treasure to watch. Simón selected her from 1,000 child actors — she has said that Artigas was the second-to-last girl who auditioned — and Artigas channels Frida’s delicate combination of uncertainty, distemper and cunning.
Moreover, she embodies the messiness of life, and the control we are sometimes forced to relinquish, especially in the face of unforeseen tragedy. There’s a lot roiling under the film’s bucolic surfaces. It’s ultimately about a path toward healing, of accepting life’s traumas. As Simón shows us, these revelations can manifest in beautiful and unexpected ways. What a superb summer excursion.
SUMMER 1993. Director: Carla Simón; Cast: Laia Artigas, Bruna Cusi, Paula Robles, David Verdaguer, Paulo Blanco, Jordi Figueras; Distributor: Oscilloscope; Not rated; in Catalan with English subtitles. Opens Friday at Living Room Theaters in Boca Raton and the Classic Gateway Theater in Fort Lauderdale.