Film Review: Summer 1993 (Spain, 2017) is an illuminating and nuanced look at the mindset of a child in mourning

It is perfectly reasonable to believe that the majority of the world sees cinema as a temporary reprieve of the burdens of the outside world. We all see enjoyably bombastic things that would never occur in real-life like dragons, magic, aliens, sea creatures; features that are proven to provide examples of powerful cinema.

But on the other side of the spectrum, witnessing stories that are incredibly realistic and true-to-life can also provide examples of powerful cinema. Case in point: Carla Simon‘s directorial debut, Summer 1993.

Receiving full critical acclaim from various film festivals around the world, it was selected as the Spanish entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 90th Academy Awards (but it wasn’t nominated). Will the film live up to its sterling reputation?

In the summer of 1993, following the death of her parents, six-year old Frida (Laia Artigas) is forced from bustling Barcelona to the Catalan provinces to live with her aunt (Bruna Cusí) and uncle (David Verdaguer), her new legal guardians.

The couple’s own daughter Anna (Paula Robles), even younger than Frida, welcomes her new sister with open arms without an ounce of jealousy, but Frida has a hard time coping with her emotions in her new chapter of her life.

Even as the new family begins to find some semblance of balance, the nature of her parents’ passing casts a shadow over how Frida is treated by the local community. Indeed, her life will never be the same.

A complete surprise in the best of ways, Summer 1993 is one of the best films of 2018. Let’s begin to discuss why that is. The many themes in the film of death, loss, loneliness are dealt with subtlety, nuance, honesty and conviction from Carla Simon‘s direction.

Her filmmaking immerses the audience into the story, making them feel the summer heat (thanks to cinematographer Santiago Racaj), hear the sounds of nature like the gusts of wind and the insects buzzing (thanks to the sound editor Roger Blasco), the awkwardness and the slow-burn tension of the many conflicting emotions of the lead character.

Since the story is somewhat autobiographical to her life experiences as a child, she pulls one hell of a trick to convey those themes from the perspective of a six-year old girl. Not to mention the nature of the death as well as the reputation of Frida’s parents and the time the story is set. In one particular scene, one mother even her daughter away in terror when Frida cuts her knee, scared that she might be contagious.

The film also becomes brutally honest, as we follow the actions of Frida, as she contemplates how to get some of the affection that is embraced upon her younger cousin, Anna. The passive aggression and jealousy causes her to be selfish and sometimes, shockingly cruel, especially in a scene that involves a lake that will definitely draw gasps from the audience.

But none of this would work if we don’t believe in or empathize with the lead characters and Simon succeeds with flying colours, as she gets captivating performances from her child actors. In interviews, director Simon said that she simply gave direction during shooting just by standing next to the camera, giving instructions.

It was something that easy that gave us two fantastic lead actresses in both Laia Artigas and Paula Robles. Both deliver likable, believable and thankfully, naturalistic performances that lend the film the authenticity and they never act to the camera in a precocious fashion. The supporting cast consisting of Bruna Cusí and David Verdaguer, do a great job lending credibility to the film, but the stars of the film are Artigas and Robles.

What is best about Summer 1993 is that Simon never makes the film mawkishly sentimental. Every emotional moment feels genuine and earned without resorting to histrionics, blatant overuse of the stirring musical score and especially the lead performers acting all cutesy just to wring a few more tears out of the audience.

Featuring fantastic performances from its cast, sensitive and illuminating direction from director Carla Simon and an assuredly humanistic look on the mindset of a child, Summer 1993 is one of 2018’s best films. Please go see this film because if we don’t see the films that deserve it, we get the films that we deserve.

Review Score: FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Summer 1993 is in limited release from today.