Summer 1993 (“Estiu 1993”) (Carla Simón, 2017) 4 out of 4 stars.
A heartbreaking coming-of-age tale about a 6-year-old girl adjusting to a new life with a new family, Summer 1993 showcases remarkable, naturalistic performances from its ensemble of actors – including two children – as well as fine direction from first-time feature-helmer Carla Simón. Hers is an autobiographical narrative in which young Frida (Laia Artigas), following the premature demise of both parents, is pulled from the home in Barcelona that she loves and thrown into the (to us) gorgeous Catalan countryside. To her, it’s no idyll – despite the love and attention showered on her by aunt, uncle and cousin – but a daily reminder of all that she’s lost. We watch as she pouts and misbehaves, understanding her pain, hoping she will emerge healed and whole. It’s a rough journey, but of such odysseys is good drama made.
It takes a while for the story threads to merge into a cohesive tapestry, but that is by design. Simón – who, according to the press notes, is telling a dramatized version of her own life – slowly weaves scenes together with gentle ellipses and brisk transitions. Very little is explained, at first, except what can be gleaned through context. We know right away that something has happened to send Frida away, but it is not until the 29th minute that we hear her speak the words “my mother died.” When that admission is followed by a parent’s horror that her own daughter might touch the blood on Frida’s knee (from a fall), we sense that there is even more to the tragedy than orphanhood. More details will emerge, but until they do, we are content to absorb the atmosphere of drowsy summer days, occasionally broken by sudden dramatic flare-ups caused by Frida’s ongoing coping process. Fortunately, she has very supportive foster parents.
They are her mother’s brother and his wife. Esteve (David Verdaguer) and Marga (Bruna Cusí) already have a child – Anna (Paula Robles), a few years younger – yet embrace Frida as their own. Their warmth and generosity of spirit are seductive, even to Frida, but the child’s trauma is too great to be so easily dispelled. The adoring Anna is an easy, gullible target of Frida’s jealous machinations, and we worry constantly that the older girl may take her vindictive games too far, precipitating a new calamity. Despite the lull of the warm weather – captured in evocative, palpable compositions by cinematographer Santiago Racaj – Frida’s simmering distress keeps us from our afternoon siesta. Something will have to break, and soon.
Verdaguer and Cusí imbue their characters with kindness and joy, however much Frida tests their resolve. Robles, as Anna, is a lovely, innocent foil to the desperately manipulative Frida, whom Artigas invests with a loneliness and melancholy that belies the surface smiles she flashes at adults to earn their praise. As a group, all four actors mesmerize. For such a seemingly small story, set almost entirely in one location, it’s extraordinary how high the stakes are raised, making the final catharsis – played almost as an afterthought following the resolution of one major conflict – a true release of emotion. Childhood matters, and to Simón, one of the most important moments of hers was the summer of 1993. She survived, and now gives us this lovely, gut-wrenching account of that ordeal and its happy conclusion. Just as did she, we emerge transformed by the experience.
[In Catalan, with English subtitles.]