SUMMER 1993. Laia Artigas, Paula Robles, Bruna Cusí, David Verdaguer. Directed by Carla Simón. 98 minutes. Rated PG (Mild themes and occasional coarse language).
When her mother dies from AIDS, a six-year-old girl is sent to the countryside to live with her uncle and his family. For her feature-length debut, writer-director Carla Simón has crafted an autobiographical snapshot, a naturalistic slice of life that depicts the barriers between her young protagonist and a normal life in understated, sensitive detail. While the story moves slowly and carefully, it is the honest performances that seize your attention, with its pair of young leads delivering excellent, well-rounded turns utterly devoid of self-awareness.
Frida (Laia Artigas) is packed up by her grandparents and aunts and sent to live away from the city, though not before her devout grandmother (Isabel Rocatti) can impart upon her the importance of praying for her mother in heaven. According to her late mother’s wishes, Frida will be raised by her mother’s brother, Esteve (David Verdaguer), and his wife, Marga (Bruna Cusí), who reside on some rural acreage but work for a nearby resort. In their large but rustic farmhouse, Frida shares a bedroom with her young cousin, Anna (Paula Robles), and her adoptive parents try to settle her in to her new life quickly.
For Frida, this transition is far from easy. Unable to forget her mother and the rhythms of the city, flashes of misbehaviour begin to bubble up, little rebellions against the cruel hand dealt to her by life. Often, these flashes of mischief are directed at Anna, the most vulnerable person in her shrunken social circle, but Marga and Esteve must grapple with the consequences emotionally, wary of both Frida’s fragility and their family’s unity.
There is also Frida’s health to consider, with a battery of ongoing tests yet to conclusively rule out any transmission of her mother’s disease. Being orphaned by an illness poorly understood and heavily stigmatised by the public has other consequences, with local parents aware of her parents’ fates and desperate to protect their own offspring, even if it means physically removing them from Frida’s presence. Given the film’s languid movement, some introduced elements are left somewhat dangling, and this potentially devasting thread is one of the victims of its unfocused approach, left somewhat unexplored in the film.
Simón’s direction draws heavily upon the hallmarks of independent cinema, favouring long and unbroken takes shot with handheld cameras and natural light. There is little in the way of a traditional narrative, with the plot flowing slowly from one relatively minor event to the next (which sometimes causes its lean runtime to feel longer). The stakes are deeply personal, and thus may not register for every audience, but Simón’s intimate portrayal of a child struggling to rebuild a sense of family should sink its hooks into most people who have experienced personal loss.
David Verdaguer and Bruna Cusí are terrific as the girls’ parents, but they’re brought to life when interacting with their young co-stars. Paula Robles frankly seems too young to act, let alone be directed, but her Anna is exceptional, appearing utterly unaware of the medium in which her character exists, a real being, not a character. In the lead, Laia Artigas gives a wonderfully nuanced performance, vividly conveying Frida’s heartbreaking predicament with subtle shifts in body language and voice. It’s probably the highest praise possible to note that, when Simón set out to make a film rooted in her own childhood, one can see why she would choose such an astonishing talent to play herself. ‘Summer 1993’ is a fine debut for both the filmmaker and her little star.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out August 2.