The human condition has been captured through the eyes of a young girl in Carla Simón’s autobiographical feature debut Summer 1993, a minimalist drama from Spain that explores the grieving process of a child.
As the title suggests, the story takes place in the summer of 1993 and chronicles the life of Frida, a six-year-old girl whose parents have recently died. She is taken in by her uncle and aunt, who have now become her legal guardians (and have a four-year-old daughter of their own). Throughout the course of the summer she must adjust to her new life in the remote province of Catalonia, which is far from her former home in the busy city of Barcelona.
As the reality of her new life begins to sink in, Frida struggles to comprehend what has happened to her and, impervious to the weight of her recent loss, she spends her summer exploring the landscapes around her and playing with her new sister. When exposed to the love and nurture of her new family dynamic, she begins to emotionally withdraw from them and acts up in a series of behaviours that undermine their authority. What follows is a heartbreaking and joyous, emotional journey that encapsulates the essence of childhood more profoundly than I can recall seeing before.
Simón has brilliantly created an environment for her actors that is non-evasive and allows them the freedom to explore. With two child actors at the crux of the story, she observes their evolution candidly and evokes a raw and spontaneous delivery that feels mostly improvised. Her six and four-year-old stars give two of the most natural and convincing performances that I have seen from children their age, with young Laia Artigas carrying the entire weight of the film on her shoulders. As an actress she is wise beyond her years, and her handling of such heavy material is astounding. Within the skip of a beat she takes her character to places that most adult actors couldn’t imagine, from deep despair and full awareness, to youthful jubilation and inexplicable jealousy. She dazzles the screen with a kaleidoscopic performance that serves as a masterclass to any aspiring actor.
The film’s weakness, however, is its cinematography. The camera is so squarely focused on capturing emotional energy that it disregards the surrounding environment. Were it not for a few fleeting glimpses of mountainous regions the audience would be forgiven for misplacing the location. The world surrounding Frida’s life should play a large thematic role in her story, yet Simón’s focus is honed in on the characters themselves and rarely pulls away. This, unfortunately, results in an invasive shaky-cam aesthetic and a forced emotional perspective. Had she relaxed her camera a little she would have captured something truly unique and dynamic.
It’s also a slow film, almost wearisome in fact, and because of the relaxed approach to capturing the performances the narrative meanders significantly. Shots linger on characters for minutes at a time where little is said. We are given an image and we are forced to make of it what we will. That is, until the observational motive is revealed. This makes for an often-gruelling viewing experience, where the payoff becomes more obvious upon reflection. The snail’s pace at which it all unfolds may serve the character arc well but it may also test the audience’s patience.
Nevertheless, these shortcomings don’t take away from the film’s overall impact. Summer 1993 is an emotionally charged character study that runs the gamut of emotions. It is superbly acted and beautifully earnest, and features one of the most fulfilling end scenes I have seen in many years.