“Why aren’t you crying?” a boy asks 6-year-old Frida as St. Joan fireworks—a Catalan summer solstice festivity—crackle in the background. Frida however doesn’t answer—instead she stoically gazes at the blazing night sky. That’s how Carla Simón’s incredibly poignant personal feature debut begins. Based on Simón’s own experiences with the loss of her parents at a very young age, Summer 1993 centers on Frida, a sly, precocious orphan compellingly played by the gifted young Laia Artigas. We quickly learn Frida’s parents died of AIDS and that she is taken in by her aunt and uncle, played by emerging talent Bruna Cusí and the mustached Catalan heartthrob David Verdaguer, popularly known for 10.000 km. They take Frida to the countryside for the summer with the hopes of returning some semblance of normalcy to her life. There, we find out the reason Frida is not crying in that first scene is as fascinatingly complex as her character. This is also where the film's emotional weight lies and pulls from.
The story unfolds as the audience gradually understand things from Frida’s point of view—we hear what she hears and we know what she knows. Simón commits to this point of view, which is why she keeps the camera at Frida’s height throughout the film, sometimes even cropping out some of the adults’ bodies. Because we experience everything from Frida’s perspective, we sometimes also hear the muffled voices of the adult characters talking in the background: they discuss legalities, death, illness, parental concerns and other mature subjects. We are left wondering how much Frida can understand them, but most likely it is a lot more than they think.
Child performances don’t always land, but when they do they can be astonishing and unexpected. Laia Artigas’ rendering of Frida is a truly remarkable feat, perhaps in the ranks of 8-year-old Brooklynn Prince’s star role in The Florida Project last year. But contrary to Prince’s exuberant outbursts, Artigas plays the character inwards, guarding intricate and strong emotional energy instead of freeing it in fits of rage and joy as children often do. This is extraordinary for an actress her age and it is perhaps the film’s most noticeable strength.
Not as noticeable but equally as enthralling is Bruna Cusí’s youthful and maternal sternness as Frida’s aunt, Marga, who struggles with her own inexperience as a young mother. Her efforts are contrasted by Verdaguer’s masculine nonchalance and charm as Frida’s dad, Esteve. Marga and Esteve must deal now with Frida in addition to her own toddler Anna (the adorable Paula Robles). They struggle to figure out how to speak about death with Frida and Anna, and in one scene where their cat dies they resort to the old he-went-away-on-a-trip cliché. But most of these responsibilities particularly fall on Marga, who also must deal with the pressure of her religious in-laws. Cusí is subtle but captivating as she occasionally shared Artigas’ spotlight. The actors play out these intricate family dynamics on the surface, with the illness and death of Frida’s mother remaining tensely unspoken.
Summer 1993 is not just a mere autobiographical retelling of Simón’s accounts, it stems from “memories, family stories, imagination…,” as she states in the press notes, “everything got mixed in my mind when I started writing the script.” Thus she makes the narrative plays out like a memory. The pacing is smooth and steady, accurately portraying what (if one can remember) those endless childhood summers felt like—some medley of solitude, boredom and fun. The rate at which the story moves can feel steady but also incredibly poignant, as it reminds us of the passing of time and how incredibly lonely childhood can be.
Catalan-language films are rare but there are some exciting talents emerging in the region. While the world talks about making the future of film female, in Catalonia it is perhaps already a current reality. Simón joins an emerging generation of young talents like Elena Martin (Julia Ist) and Meritxell Colell (Facing the Wind), who follow the steps of more established filmmakers like Roser Aguilar (Brava), Maria Ripoll (Tortilla Soup) and of course, Isabel Coixet. And although the number of female filmmakers and female leads in Catalan cinema is notable, the industry is by no means faultless, particularly regarding public and private financing.
In Summer 1993, Simón offers us an intimate look at grief and the loss of childhood. It’s not rare for films to be based on the author’s personal experiences, but Simón offers us something unique in Frida, an alter ego that’s perhaps not so concerned with the ego and more attentive to the truth of experience and memory. She allows her actors the freedom to speak for themselves, perhaps even incorporate their own experience. The result is then a story that it is no longer just Simón’s but more universal.