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This autobiographical debut from 32-year-old Spanish film-maker Carla Simón is a jewel. In its subtlety, richness and warmth it is entirely beguiling – complex and simple at the same time. It is also very moving. Summer 1993 is about childhood and a child’s fraught relationship to the adult world, and has some of the most miraculous child performances I can remember seeing recently, although the concept of “performances” and “acting” are meaningless with children this young: two little girls of six and three years old. There is something awe-inspiring in realising that, to all intents and purposes, what we are seeing is real. The moment-by-moment interplay of emotions and dramatic gestures between these children is effectively innocent of grownup play-acting and pretend.
It is a classic premise for a film about a remembered childhood – although the act of remembering is only implicit, contained in the title. This happened more than 20 years ago. Frida, played by Laia Artigas, is a lonely six-year-old who has been sent away from her home in Barcelona to live with her aunt and uncle and their infant daughter in the countryside: a long, drowsy, lazy summer is in prospect before Frida must enrol at the local school for a new term. But there is nothing idyllic about it. Frida is going away because her mum has just died, and it appears her father had also died, a few years previously. Frida is in shock, or she is simply too young to process what is happening. A mean kid in the first scene jeers at her: “Why aren’t you crying?”
Her mum’s brother Esteve (David Verdaguer) has agreed to take in little Frida, and effectively raise her as his own daughter, and he is supported by his partner Marga (Bruna Cusí). They are a relaxed and loving couple, but taking in Frida has clearly not been easy. They have a three-year-old, Anna (Paula Robles), and suddenly giving her this difficult elder sister has messed with the family dynamic and pre-empted the unspoken question of whether they might have another child. Then there are Frida’s grandparents, chiefly her formidable and Catholic grandmother Àvia (Isabel Rocatti) who makes Frida recite the Lord’s Prayer whenever she sees her and makes her carry her late mother’s holy communion certificate with her all the time.
And how did Frida’s mother die? The rumours have been getting out among Esteve and Marga’s neighbours. Frida is given blood tests by a local doctor. When she falls and cuts her knee while playing at the local park, paranoid parents grab their own kids and tell them to go nowhere near Frida’s blood – to Marga’s silent rage. And Frida herself makes tiny uncomprehending Anna play dressing-up games in which she will play Frida, and Frida will play her own mum: in heavy makeup, a childish parody of borderline-slutty grownup clothes, while drawling, “Mummy is too tired to play with you, darling” – a poignantly bizarre performance inspired by the jazz sax that just happens to be playing on Esteve’s radio. And then Frida herself becomes increasingly dysfunctional: selfish, petulant, with odd coquettish mannerisms evidently learned from her mother. She is coldly jealous of Anna having a mum and dad, becoming an increasingly disruptive and even malign presence: there is even something of We Need to Talk About Kevin going on. Marga becomes afraid of her, which makes their reconciliation all the more powerful.
Simón has a masterly way of controlling long, wordless scenes involving just Frida and Anna: the very essence of kids just aimlessly playing among themselves, and then wonderingly realising that something might be very wrong. The film often just gives us bedtime or bathtime scenes and lets them run to the end in what feels like real time. There is quiet wisdom in that. What a lovely film it is.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Summer 1993 review – stunning drama of a childhood ripped apart | World cinema