* * * (out of five)
Last year Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird concluded with the lead character offering her mother two of the most basic, important and simple words we have as a species. The film was known to be semi-autobiographical, and, despite its immense value as easily accessible entertainment, those final words revealed it to be, essentially, incredibly direct. It was the movie equivalent of a personal message from one person to another via social media: simultaneously intimate and completely public.
Now, Carla Simón’s Summer 1993 does a similar thing, but this time the story, characters and scenes are acknowledged to be not just ‘semi’ but directly autobiographical, and, therefore, the film lacks Lady Bird’s advantage of dramatic license. The events of Summer 93 are interesting and affecting, but they can’t possibly be as meaningful to anyone as they must be to Simón, nor the stakes as high. Gerwig’s film achieved some general appeal, but Simón’s is inherently specific.
In the summer of 1993, following the death of her parents, Simón went to live in the Catalonian countryside with her uncle, his wife, and their daughter, and not for the short term. It was obviously a summer that changed everything for Simón, an elongated reckoning with a cataclysmic event, and her film’s greatest ambition and, to a fair extent, achievement is portraying the unique and fascinating way a six year old deals with grief, loss and change. She has to recall how her young brain processed such heavy materials, interpret it, and present it in a way that we – adults, assumedly – can relate.
It’s a tough (self-)assignment, and Simón doesn’t make it any easier on herself by restricting her shooting style to the basic elements of script, cast and location. She barely uses music and completely eschews any flourishes of camera or post-production, limiting herself to handheld coverage of her actors’ naturalistic performances. Luckily, her entire small ensemble are exceptional and, vitally for a film like this, feel completely real.
Of course, the whole enterprise rests entirely on Simón’s star, and avatar, Laia Artigas; she’s the director’s only special effect. She’s excellent, but in relying on her so strongly – much of the film is spent in close-up on her small face – Simón perhaps expects too much. There’s only so much interior pain, confusion, suffering and acceptance a little girl can show.
This is a slow, quiet film of gentle revelation. It is unutterably sad throughout, and it concludes movingly. You’ll need to be in the right mood for it, and it’s probably best approached as cinema to be appreciated rather than a story to be enjoyed. Come to see the debut feature of a promising filmmaker, armed with patience, a sense of discovery, and, if possible, your own inner child.