It is not surprising to discover that this autobiographical effort from writer/director Carla Simón has garnered myriad awards at international festivals and industry ceremonies because Summer 1993 is an understated gem that is remarkably powerful in its simplicity. Tracking the events in the life of six-year-old Frida in the immediate aftermath of her mother’s death, there is a delicacy to this vivid portrait of a summer spent trying to come to terms with the course of events that have resulted in her being uprooted from Barcelona to live with relatives in rural Spain. The fact that Simón has been able to recollect events from so early in her childhood is impressive enough, but the way she has translated these experience into a big screen narrative that is utterly riveting in its realism is quite remarkable. However, most astonishing of all is the performance of Laia Artigas as Frida, a role that requires her to be on screen in almost every scene with an emotional trajectory that spans confusion, fear, anger, sadness and love, all of which she achieves with a subtlety and skill that many adult actors struggle to execute.
There is seemingly nothing really happening here other than tracking the day-to-day activities of Frida as she adjusts to life with her uncle Esteve (David Verdaguer), his wife Marga (Bruna Cusi) and their three-year-old daughter Anna (Paula Robles). The rural setting is far removed from anything Frida has experienced before and there is an amazing sense of authenticity in the way each individual moment plays out as she adjusts to her ramshackle surrounds. The details surrounding her mother’s life and death are teased out over the running time, whether it is via conversations between family members or when Frida is injured in a playground or when she and Anna engage in a role play game that sees Frida mimicing her mother’s behaviour. Left with much of the day-to-day responsibility of looking after the two girls, Marga becomes exasperated when she is unable to develop a bond with Frida, a frustration that is amplified when Frida’s actions put Anna in harm’s way.
This is a film about children, rather than for children and, as a result, the camerawork under the guidance of cinematographer Santiago Racaj evoke the viewpoint and sensory perceptions of a child. The world of someone so young moves slowly and the camera often alternates between Frida’s eyes and what they see. Like anyone her age, Frida is mischievous and not always entirely honest, sometimes ambivalent about her relationship with Marga and other times desperate to impress. The audience, however, get access to information that passes between the adult characters whose conversations are usually about Frida but never include her which, with Anna so young, leaves Frida in her own little world, mired in confusion, exploring her new environment and struggling to find an outlet for her grief.
Whilst the movie captures the essence of what makes summer such a joyful season, Simón delves into the darkness and delivers a mature exploration of grief and the lingering after-effects, especially for those so young who find it difficult to understand exactly how they are supposed to feel. Whilst it would be easy to simply categorise Frida as a pain in the neck, it is what drives her actions rather than the deeds themselves that need to be considered, and it is only in those final frames amidst the realisation of what is happening to her that Frida is able to release her inner anguish. With plenty to say about the importance of family and the way in which young people experience and articulate profound loss, and with cinematography and settings that create their own visual and emotional pleasures, Summer 1993 is a film to be savoured and will likely leave a lasting impression.