Summer 1993

Review © Jane Freebury

PG, Subtitled

Screening at Palace Electric

4 Stars

 

Without fanfare or introduction, a little girl wanders from room to room, looking dazed as she clutches her doll while adults pack up the contents of the flat that was her home. Snippets of conversation drift in, hinting at what has happened: her mother has died.

It’s a story from the heart by the writer and director Carla Simon. A study of loss and renewal that is loosely autobiographical and explores the journey she had to make to a new life.

Frida (Laia Artigas) is ferried off to the countryside to live with her aunt, uncle and little cousin who is close in age. Her mother’s brother Esteve (David Verdaguer) and wife Marga (Bruna Cusi) live an idyllic, uncomplicated existence outside Barcelona on a rural property where they grow their own.

With a couple of years of age on her country cousin, Frida commands a bit of authority over her, and the moppet, Anna (Paula Robles), dutifully follows her around. But it is the older child who is watchful and insecure under her halo of brown curls, unsure of her place in her new family and jealous of how her cousin can take a close and loving family for granted.

Sentiment is minimal, naturalism is all, and it is very moving

Inevitably, the little girls compete. When they both hurry off to collect the lettuce that Marga has asked for, Frida brings back a cabbage instead. Anna arrives a few moments later with the correct item. She, of course, knows the difference.

It is said that the two young actors were cast because a power struggle quickly developed between them during auditions. It that did indeed happen, it is sensitively captured here, allowing for the perspective of both girls to be expressed.

It can be painful to watch Frida’s mis-steps on her journey as she figures out where she sits in her new family. In one scene that prompts an uneasy sense of anticipation she attempts to act the coquette in lipstick, feather boa and long adult boots, while in another she tries to lose her trusting cousin in the woods. When Frida packs up one night to leave, Anna wants to know why. It’s because no one loves her. Anna responds without a moment’s hesitation ‘I love you’.

Marga and her new ‘daughter’ also need to bond, and here again the filmmaker shows her considerable skill. How difficult a new arrival must be for a young mother with her own child to raise. For Anna’s parents, it’s a question of having hope and confidence in including Frida in their little family unit, while protecting what they already cherish, and it is not inconsiderable. The images of family life here are some of the loveliest I’ve seen on screen.

The delicate process of establishing a blended family that takes place before us is largely told from the perspective of a damaged and uncertain little girl, the odd one out. Sentiment is minimal, naturalism is all, and it is very moving.

The title also reminds us how many young lives were lost from AIDS-related illness, before there were ways to manage the disease. The point is made lightly, in a little scene in which Frida finally asks why her mother died. Was the doctor ‘new’?

Summer 1993 is an exquisite study of a young orphan who moves from grief and confusion to hope and belonging. A special film that the director has dedicated to her young mother.

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle

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