What it's about: Frida is a young girl growing up in the Catalonia region of Spain. When both of her parents die of AIDS, she is sent to live with her aunt and uncle in a small community. She explores her new environment, her younger cousin always following behind, while getting in plenty of childhood trouble. As the summer goes on, Frida begins to wonder more about what happened to her parents, causing her to rebel against her new guardians. But she is stuck. This is her family now and she must learn to accept that.
I saw Carla Simón's Summer 1993 late last year during the height of awards screener season as it was part of the slate sent to critics from Oscilloscope Laboratories. Seeing Summer 1993 in the midst of a catch-up cram session is not ideal and I hadn't retained much of the slow-paced story. When the film received a limited theatrical release a few weeks back I decided it was worth shaking the dust off the screener and revisit the film. I'm glad I did. Summer 1993 is a beautiful, tender, and distinct film.
Because the film is told through its young, quiet, shy protagonist, it takes on a curious, observational tone. Much of the spoken dialogue early on doesn't feel produced or scripted, instead something more natural that isn't necessarily directed at anyone -- it's as if Frida hears the adults talking but really isn't listening.
There are many moments of wonder that approach something like Beasts of the Southern Wild without the obvious fantasy. The opening scene, which is really one of great tragedy, is beautifully captured with Frida being driven away with fireworks going off visible through the rear window. Frida coming across a religious statue in the forest has an air of mystery.
Until the ending of the film, where Frida opens up with her aunt about what happened to her mother, the implications of her death are gently explored, rarely vocalized. The most heartbreaking scene where this bubbles up happens when Frida scrapes her knee during a game of tag with other kids; one of the mothers reacts aggressively, making sure her child keeps away from the blood. It isn't overstated and Frida is oblivious to what is happening.
Summer 1993's premiere shot is a mid-closeup from the side of Frida, with the open environment surrounding her just out of focus. Shots like this are used throughout the film and help build its hazy tone.
I'm a few years older than what Frida is here though the film is set in a time without the same rapid tech explosion, so it feels like the kind of world I grew up in. It is quiet, a lot of time spent out side, exploration, the need for an imagination to survive. The summer felt slow and big. I don't know if 1993 has any specific significance, but it is a distinct time and it is captured perfectly.
Laia Artigas, who plays Frida, is the star and she's fantastic, but I can't not mention Paula Robles as her younger cousin, the one who gets the brunt of all of Frida's mischief.
Summer 1993 ends with another touching moment, one that completes the arc of her new family. From the start, Marga and Esteve try their best to bring Frida into a comfortable and happy life. They certainly are in a tough position and they are clearly trying their best, but they are emotionally removed. The film frames them in the story in an interesting way -- Aunt Marga is more integrated, but both are really only at the edges. As I mentioned before, in the scenes where Frida is integrating into her new life, they seem to be barely seen or heard. In the final moments, however, they show clearly that they love Frida as their own daughter.