In some ways, childhood means living at the mercy of the universe. This is especially true if it’s the 1990s and the AIDS virus has made an orphan of you. You have no say in where you live, or even in who you play with, because other kids’ parents blanch in horror anytime you cough and evacuate the premises when you scrape your knees while climbing rocks. Ultimately you’re contained by a disease which is as misunderstood by the adults governing your life as it is by the population at large.
It’s against this backdrop of knee-jerk ignorance that Carla Simón has set her feature debut, the autobiographical drama Summer 1993, a movie about childhood marinated in confusion born from death. Her surrogate is Frida (Laia Artigas), six years old and, as the film opens, in the process of being whisked from her home in Barcelona to live in the countryside with her uncle, Esteve (David Verdaguer), and her aunt, Marga (Bruna Cusí, Spain’s Sally Hawkins doppelgänger), after her mother passes away. It’s a chaotic scene shot from Artigas’ perspective, the camera latched to her alone, other characters appearing only when they happen to wander into the frame. Simón’s focal point is Frida, and remains such throughout the movie. The adult experience is tangential to her own.
The first thing we notice about Frida is her eyes. They’re wide, and they shine like daybreak, taking in everything that happens around her as she struggles to come to terms with how rapidly, and how profoundly, her life has changed course. Summer 1993 adopts an observational mode as a byproduct of her passive qualities, but she’s not an altogether passive character. Simón, summoning personal recollections of her own upbringing, understands the childish impulse to affect one’s environment through acting out. Frida’s no different from most young kids in that regard, tipping milk onto a nightdress gifted to her by her grandmother (Isabel Rocatti), throwing temper tantrums, or abandoning her cousin, Anna (Paula Robles), in the woods in a game of hide and seek gone askew. (It’s mostly just “hide.”)
But the more trouble Frida causes, whether intended or not, the more Summer 1993 reveals her interior helplessness. Objectively, she’s dependent on Esteve and Marga to care for her, but that’s not at issue. Every kid needs grownups to steer them. What troubles Frida, and what is most troubling about the film, is the forced confrontation with life’s vagaries at so young an age. Kids shouldn’t bury their parents when they’re six. They shouldn’t watch, paralyzed, as the home they know is broken down into boxes, as they’re loaded into a van with their things, as they’re relocated to unfamiliar places when none of their questions have been given satisfactory answers. They don’t even know what questions they need to ask at first. They’re utterly without comprehension of their circumstances.
Frida isn’t an idiot. She’s aware that mom and dad are gone forever (though dad’s death predates the events of the film). She’s not as aware of the “why”: why her mother died, why no one could save her, why her family kept her away from her mother’s deathbed, whether her mom left any parting message for Frida. And though Marga can explain the nature of the AIDS virus to Frida, she cannot explain why AIDS exists in the first place, or why Frida’s mom, of all people, had to contract it. Summer of 1993 hangs these mortal concerns over Frida’s head, lending her story a quiet, abiding air of existential angst.
The film never feels too overtly angsty, though. Simón is too natural a filmmaker for that. Rather than front load her work with overwrought ennui or treacly sentimentality, she lands gut punches that leave bruises. Summer 1993 feels of a piece with movies like Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Mustang, or, perhaps more distantly, Ira Sachs’ Little Men, another movie about the impressions adult turmoil leaves on children’s lives, where the camera (manned by Óscar Durán) feels like a character unto itself. Simón’s cinematographer, Santiago Racaj, treats his lens as a member of the cast, too, impartial to the action without ever feeling removed from it. That dynamic has a way of subtly enhancing the film’s realism: Because Racaj and Simón are so involved, and so invisible, in their work, we inevitably feel more present in the story. Frida’s uncertainties become our own.
Summer of 1993 does what movies do so well (and yet so rarely do), which is to let viewers see the world through the eyes of another. Sometimes, Simón pulls this off literally, by angling Racaj’s camera upward, capturing the world from Frida’s vantage point. Most times she pulls it off figuratively by hanging the film on Artigas’ wonderful performance. But throughout she completely absorbs the viewer in this portrait drawn from her memories, painting a picture of Spain caught up in AIDS era disinformation that’s also an evocation of childhood doubts.
Director: Carla Simón
Writer: Carla Simón, Valentina Viso
Starring: Laia Artigas, Paula Robles, Bruna Cusí, David Verdaguer, Isabel Rocatti, Fermí Reixach, Montse Sanz
Release Date: May 25, 2018
Boston-based culture writer Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.