Film Review: Summer 1993

A superbly crafted, autobiographical look at a seminal season in the filmmaker’s childhood.
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With subtlety and feeling, writer-director Carla Simón has artfully recreated the summer after her mother passed away. In Summer 1993, Simón has written a fictional stand-in for herself in the character of six-year-old Frida (a preternaturally terrific Laia Artigas): willful, undisciplined, cunning and lonely. Slow and episodic, the film—alternating between elegiac moments, moments of real tension and moments of humor (the humor of watching someone else’s child craftily misbehave)—tells a small but ultimately affecting story.

When our tale begins, Frida is preparing to move from Barcelona, where she has shared an apartment with her mother, to the Catalonian countryside to live with her mother’s brother, Esteve (David Verdaguer), his wife, Marga (Bruna Cusí), and their four-year-old daughter, Anna (Paula Robles). The story unfolds from Frida’s point of view and as such is disorienting and a bit confusing for, say, the first 15 minutes or so: Who are all these adults around Frida? How are they related to her? Just how did her mother (to say nothing of her father) die?

In their own time, and with such skillful subtlety it would be a shame to spoil their effects by recounting them in writing here, the answers to these questions and more are supplied to us, bit by revealing bit. Meanwhile, we watch Frida test her limits in this new family and push to see how much she can get away with. In particular, the dynamic between Frida and her four-year-old cousin Anna is superbly observed: When Frida refuses to tie her shoes, the formerly obedient Anna starts refusing, too; when Frida tires of her cousin’s “Will you play with me now?”s she takes off and leaves her in the woods, only to find—in a heart-stopping sequence—that Anna is not where she left her; when Frida asks Anna if she wants to eat a dead fly, Anna asks Frida if she wants to call her dead mom.

It is these biting moments that give the film its air of authenticity. The interactions between the two girls are remarkably natural. The adults have their own troubles, too. There’s a grandmother who is at once too rigid in her old-school thinking and too lenient with Frida, as a result bouncing up against Marga and her efforts to discipline her niece. But it’s the relationship between Frida and Anna that is, rightfully, given the most attention and is the most entertaining and heartbreaking, with all its unaffected undulations.

The emotional subtlety of the story are complemented by the grand, lush setting of the Catalonian countryside. Green of all shades in trees and plants and vegetables beneath lofty mountains and a sun that seems eternally placed lend the visuals a beauty that is, like nearly everything else about this film, natural. Which isn’t to say Simón and her director’s hand is nowhere to be seen. On the contrary, her control is everywhere apparent. It’s in the static camera that captures the eerie arrangement of a baby doll with its back to us, “watching” an adolescent doll while above them Frida and Anna play mommy and daughter. It’s in the classically triangular arrangement of farming tools and gardening-shed flotsam that conceal Frida as she hides from Anna. It’s in the pool of water seen at an oblique angle below Frida as she stares into its depths after having lost Anna in the woods.

Because the film is so episodic, comprised of “small” moments that build to a final and correspondingly “small” (though affecting) change in Frida, it could perhaps stand to shed an episode or two in the interest of keeping the story moving. One could do so in a way that wouldn’t sacrifice the leisurely pacing of thee moments that are the most important, and which depend upon a slow unspooling. Though each episode is well filmed and observed in and of itself, when one finds oneself checking to see how much time has passed in an effort to gauge how much time is left, thoughts of the benefits that some minor trimming could afford inevitably arise.

Summer 1993 won the Best First Feature Prize at the 2017 Berlin International Film Festival and was selected as Spain’s official Oscar entry for Best Foreign Language Film. Both these distinctions seem like the natural results of such an effortless-seeming work. 

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