Thursday 12 July 2018

Another country: "Summer 1993"

Summer 1993 is a film in the illustrious lineage of Victor Erice's The Spirit of the Beehive and Carlos Saura's Cría cuervos, bringing us closer to the present, while demonstrating that Spanish directors haven't lost their near-singular ability to coax great, natural yet remarkably precise performances from very young children; nor their facility for showing us the universe through a child's eyes, and thereby making it seem newly strange and complicated. For practically its entire 97 minutes, Carla Simón's feature debut intends for us to interpret the world as its six-year-old heroine sees and passes through it: we're walking a mile or so of bumpy ground in adorably tiny shoes. That heroine is Frida (Laia Artigas), introduced having a suitcase packed for her and being driven away from her Barcelona home to stay with her aunt and uncle in the Catalan countryside. Why this is happening isn't immediately clear, and we're equally on unfamiliar ground once we arrive at the new place, having to feel our way into this semi-idyllic rural environment much as Frida has to herself. What is certain is that this girl is no longer the #1 priority, for her guardians have their own smaller bundle of joy to oversee; and that the attention she does receive is of the panicky and overprotective variety. As the band 4 Non Blondes were heard to sing around this particular historical moment: what's going on?

We will find out in the course of a film that feels simultaneously highly controlled and yet wholly spontaneous from scene to scene. There are, it turns out, narrative reasons for setting the film in 1993, and Simón has taken care to get the details right, some (Dogtanian on the TV, Cobi - mascot for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics - on a T-shirt) more universal and recognisable than others (a Catalan dinner ritual that involves the passing of napkins, some distinctly localised pop hits). For the most part, however, we're left to watch the farmhouse's junior residents interacting and exploring the house, its gardens and wider surrounds. What Simón has inherited from Erice and Saura is an understanding that untrained youngsters can be tremendous allies when it comes to storytelling: they naturally have the viewer's sympathies, yet when it comes to setting something up or letting slip the clues that will assist in forming and filling in any bigger picture, the right child performers will most often do so in a way that appears guileless, truthful, the very opposite of clunky exposition. Putting little tykes in the foreground also opens up another plane of activity, namely what's going on behind or around them, and in this, Summer 1993 is not so very far removed from the methods of last year's standout American release The Florida Project, another drama of dislocation with an excellent sequence of ice cream-eating.

As Sean Baker did there, Simón allows us, as sentient adults, to intuit a situation while preserving the blithe innocence of the youngsters corralled centre frame; she lets you and I hear just enough of certain conversations while placing warm, protective palms over her juvenile leads' ears. That level of caretaking enabled the Florida movie's astonishing tightrope walk, and though she attempts it in a quieter, less showy fashion - replacing its predecessor's eyepopping colours with the mellow sunshine beneficial for repair and growth - Simón pulls off something not incomparable. Much of the hardest work had to have been done at the casting stage: finding not just these utterly unaffected youngsters, but the trained professionals prepared to go with the flow and interact with the kids on their own terms, while giving the merest hint of the grown-ups' own concerns. There's a terrific performance, viewed mostly in passing, from Bruna Cusi as the aunt: without once overshadowing her younger costars, she subtly conveys how this woman seems to tire with twice the number of charges to watch over, then regains her maternal strength - an arc we catch out of the corner of the eye. Just as the film captures a young life being held in suspension - a transition period, to be remembered forever - so entire scenes hold us in a striking balance: between documentary observation and something more narratively propulsive, between cinema and real life, childish skylarking and harsh experience, and - at the very last - between laughter and tears. The world we enter into is more complex than the bulk of our movies credit; here's one of the few that does that absolutely.

Summer 1993 opens in selected cinemas from tomorrow.

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