Childhood is a time of wonderment, hope, of dreams waiting to be fulfilled. But when we really look back on our childhoods we know this is a fantasy and that growing up often involves sadness, pain, and questions we’re told not to ask until we “get older.” Carla Simón’s directorial debut, Summer 1993 looks at the various facets of childhood, propelled by its two lively child performers. Slow and languid at times, Summer 1993 leaves us questioning the decisions of adults and how children internalize the need to conform to what’s normal.
Simón draws from her own life experience, telling audiences the story of Frida (Laia Artigas), a young Spanish girl living with her aunt and uncle after the death of her mother. She’s unaware of what her parents died of, though it’s evident by the way the other children are told not to touch her bleeding knee that it’s feared she carries something deadly. As Frida struggles to adjust to her new life – involving two new parents and a little sister – it leads to a repression of emotions that threaten to burst out in dangerous ways.
Summer 1993 draws from previous films about childhood experiences, with the closest comparison being Carlos Saura’s 1977 feature Cria Cuervos. Like that film, Simón places the camera always on Frida, capturing her in all her curiosity, fear, and happiness. Because the audience watches through Frida’s eyes, decisions can be felt both from her perspective as well as her aunt and uncle’s. A moment wherein Frida’s cousin, Anna (the utterly adorable Paula Robles) almost drowns, keeps the camera on Frida’s face as she stands paralyzed in terror, yet it’s easy to empathize with her uncle’s hurtful reaction. Simón illustrates how adult decisions can be misread by children – Frida being called “stupid” is enough for her to believe her family doesn’t love her.
Artigas and Robles are utterly spellbinding for the entirety of Summer 1993’s runtime. Their pure joy feels improvised, captured in the moment by Simón’s camera. We watch them laugh and play, yet Frida can’t help but get into mischief, usually at her cousin’s expense. The child actresses have a natural rapport with each other that easily helps you buy that they’re related. Their love is clear. When Frida decides to run away because “no one loves me,” Anna’s melancholic and “simple I love you” is the living embodiment of the adage “out of the mouths of babes.” Watching the two scamper is enough to make you appreciate and miss your childhood, in equal measure.
What Simón wants to spotlight is the relationships between women, and how a mother can be hindered by outside sources. Young Frida’s mother dies before the movie starts, but she’s felt in every frame, as her family judges and mourns her. Frida is given differing viewpoints of her mother, caught in snippets of adult conversation, but she’s never encouraged to talk about her. So when Frida does muster up the courage to ask about her mom, to her adoptive mother Marga (Bruna Cusi), it cements the trust of their burgeoning relationship.
Cusi is as fantastic as the child lead. Her Marga wants to establish boundaries, and treat Frida no different than Anna. She understands the girl’s loss, but realizes that coddling her and shielding her from life will only turn Frida into a spoiled child. As Frida grapples with life and death itself, nearly killing her cousin in the process, the script and Cusi’s performance never seek to vilify the character. Marga is the mother we all want, who loves her children – even the ones not born from her body – but isn’t afraid to lay down the truth and parent.
Summer 1993 is about a little girl processing life and death, desperate to know about the decisions being made for her. The final two minutes of the film release a wellspring of emotions, long bottled up by a little girl who has held it in too long. As she cries in front of her family, it represents the sadness of grief, the guilt of her newfound happiness, and a new chapter of what’s to come. Simón crafts a beautifully woven tale that makes you remember the sweetness of growing up.