SUMMER 1993 (Carla Simón, 2017)
Film Society of Lincoln Center
Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, Francesca Beale Theater
144 West 65th St. between Broadway & Amsterdam Ave.
Opens Friday, May 25
Named Best First Feature at the 2017 Berlinale, Summer 1993, Carla Simón’s autobiographical full-length debut, is an exquisite, deeply involving tale about an extraordinary young girl facing a new life after both her parents die of AIDS. Six-year-old Frida (Laia Artigas) must move from Barcelona to La Garrotxa in the Catalan countryside, where she will live with her uncle Esteve (David Verdaguer), her mother’s brother; his wife, Marga (Bruna Cusí); and their four-year-old daughter, Anna (Paula Robles). Unsurprisingly, Frida has a difficult time adjusting. When she plays with other kids and skins her knee, a scared mother whisks away her child immediately, afraid of the virus. Frida begins acting out, first in small ways, then in bigger ones, taking advantage of her cousin Anna’s caring, innocent nature. She somewhat relaxes when her grandparents (Fermí Reixach and Isabel Rocatti) and other friends and relatives visit, including Lola (Montse Sanz), Angela (Berta Pipo), Irene (Etna Campillo), and Cesca (Paula Blanco), but going back to Barcelona is not an option. Esteve keeps giving his niece the benefit of the doubt while Marga grows more and more worried about Frida’s behavior, which becomes more complex and dangerous, especially toward Anna. All the while, Frida feigns innocence, until even she realizes she may be taking things too far.
Summer 1993 plays out like an intricate, intellectual horror film, reminiscent of such genre classics as Robert Mulligan’s The Other, Mervyn LeRoy’s The Bad Seed, and even Richard Donner’s The Omen, though without any supernatural elements. Frida is not inherently evil, but from the minute she tells Anna not to touch her doll collection, it is clear she is teetering on the brink. Artigas, who was cast after Simón had interviewed nearly one thousand other children, is absolutely riveting as Frida, in complete control of her complicated character, her knowing eyes revealing wisdom well beyond her years. Cinematographer Santiago Racaj’s camera adores Artigas, exploring her face and expertly revealing her point of view. Accompanied by a lovely, emotive score, the camera is almost always in motion, sometimes just the slightest bit, representing Frida’s slightly askew, on-edge world. Robles is a charmer as Anna, seemingly too young to know what she is doing as an actress yet physically and emotionally right on target. Cusí excels as Marga, who is suspicious of Frida early on but understands that she is a girl in the midst of terrible grief, in desperate need of real connection to deal with her loss. Writer-director Simón uses water as a threat throughout the film, the pure, fresh liquid, from a bathtub to a swimming pool to a forest stream, a counterpart to the diseased blood that might have been passed down to Frida from her parents. At its core, Summer 1993 is a wise, heartfelt drama about the fears of both adults and children as they try to find their place in an ever-shifting world that can be as cold and cruel as it can be warm and loving.