AFI Film Review: ‘Summer 1993’ a Unique Autobiographical Slice of Life

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Tales of childhood meant for adults are tricky to pull off. One faces the unenviable task of creating compelling drama for the adults while repeating and adhering to the point of view of a child. Spain’s 2017 Oscar submission, “Summer 1993,” takes a more naturalistic approach in its handling of its subject matter. Writer/director Carla Simón crafts a vividly lived-in, autobiographical tale. However, it values mood over substance in a bit too heavy a dose.

A young six-year-old, Frida (Laia Artigas), relocates to live with her Uncle Esteve (David Verdaguer), Aunt Marga (Bruna Cusí), and 4-year-old cousin Anna (Paula Robles). Her mother recently passed due to a virus, leaving Frida orphaned. However, the adjustment from Barcelona to her extended family’s countryside home is not without its challenges. Frida gets along rather well with Esteve, her mother’s brother. However, Marga becomes exhausted with Frida’s antics, as she harbors feelings that Frida’s mother raised her with fewer rules. Frida plays mostly with Anna out in the woods. However, as their playtime puts Anna at risk at points, Marga’s frustration towards Frida grows.

Writer/director Carla Simón does an admirable job giving a new perspective to the “displaced child” narrative. Rather than focus on the trauma of losing one’s parents, Simón structures the narrative around Frida attempting to find a “new normal” rather than malign on her mother’s recent death. Much of this involves focusing on the day to day aspects of the family rather than dramatic outbursts. Still, this focus on mundanity displaces any plot the movie seemed to be working towards. Even at just over an hour and a half, the film becomes interminable at points thanks to the repetitiveness of the scenes. There’s a point to them and the mood Simón aims to achieve is felt. Yet, it sacrifices story to an alarming degree.

Even if the film never seems to be moving anywhere, the actors all are heavily invested in the situation. It’s tough to hand over the reigns of a film to a child, but Laia Artigas manages to fill the screen with her presence. She’s a magnanimous child actor who never feels forced into an inauthentic moment. Her mischievous streak builds an interesting character that pays off a film emotional punch. Paula Robles steals scenes as Anna, Frida’s younger cousin and essentially her “hype woman.”

Elsewhere from the kids, the world of the adults features some strong acting. David Verdaguer isn’t given a whole range of things to do as Uncle Esteve. However, he appears to be the perfect stoic patriarchal figure. Meanwhile, Bruna Cusí breathes life into Aunt Marga. Her exasperation never masks her love for her family. What’s great is Cusí overcomes the repetitive nature of the film’s structure by finding new ways to play familiar beats across multiple scenes.

“Summer 1993” recalls “The Florida Project” in many ways. Both films explore life from a child’s perspective and pay great attention to a central childhood friendship. However, while that film sees the central child’s world change around her, the seismic shift in Frida’s life happens before the film begins. The film features even more aimless scenes of Frida and Anna frolicking around the countryside. However, while beautiful to look at, the setting tells us little else about the family we are following. “The Florida Project” succeeds as it paints a picture of a community and way of life through a child’s experiences. Here, we get a nuanced and heartbreaking picture of a child displaced to her Aunt and Uncle. However, the film needs to have more insights to sustain itself. The final frames pack a wallop, but the film itself turns its emotional situation into a slight slice of life.

“Summer 1993” is Spain’s Foreign Language Film Submission for the Oscars.

GRADE: (★★½)

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