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New to MUBI - SUMMER 1993

Summer 1993 review
Following her mother's death, a young girl is taken in by relatives.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Carla Simón

Starring: Laia Artigas, Paula Robles, Bruna Cusí, David Verdaguer, Fermí Reixach

SUMMER 1993 poster

Over the last few decades, cinema has given us various takes on the AIDS crisis, from true life dramas like Dallas Buyer's Club and 120 Beats Per Minute to allegorical horrors like John Carpenter and David Cronenberg's remakes of The Thing and The Fly. Now Spanish writer/director Carla Simón gives us a new perspective on the crisis in her debut, Summer 1993 - that of a child left orphaned by parents who have succumbed to the virus.

Based somewhat on Simón's own childhood experiences, Summer 1993 sees six-year-old Frida (Laia Artigas) taken from her Barcelona home following the death of her mother and relocated to the rural home of her uncle Esteve (David Verdaguer) and Aunt Marga (Bruna Cusí), becoming an adopted sister of the couple's three-year-old daughter, Anna (Paula Robles).

Summer 1993 review

While neither AIDS nor HIV are mentioned as the cause of Frida's mother's passing, Simón lays out enough subtle cues for us to put two and two together in a way the film's young heroine is unable to. Like a Tom & Jerry cartoon, or Spielberg's E.T., Simón's camera spends most of the time at child height, and while the adults are frequently confined to the background, the snatches of overheard grown-up conversations fill in the blanks regarding Frida's potentially disastrous health status.

The horror sub-genre known as body-horror has often employed allegories for AIDS, from Jeff Goldblum's physically deteriorating scientist in The Fly to the alien parasite transmitting itself between human hosts in The Thing. Summer 1993 turns the tables, giving us a reality based AIDS drama that often plays like a body-horror movie in grounded surroundings. Frida is subjected to various tests as doctors make veiled comments regarding her "situation," and in the film's most dramatic moment, the child cuts her knee, causing a friend of her aunt Marga to instantly grab her own kid and retreat in terror. Marga scolds her friend, but while we feel for Frida in the moment, we understand the reaction at a time when misinformation regarding HIV was prevalent.

Summer 1993 review

In an uncomfortable scene, two elderly women give their commiserations to Marga, remarking that they find it strange that someone could die of pneumonia in 1993. There's a commentary on the generational divide that runs throughout Simón's film. How many of us tell white lies to the elderly regarding uncomfortable social issues? Frida's grandmother is at several times seen teaching her granddaughter the Lord's Prayer, and buying into Catholicism's fairy tales, Frida leaves an old blouse of her mother's at a grotto in hopes that the statue of the Virgin Mary can reunite her. Returning a few days later and finding the item of clothing still in place, no miracle having been performed, Frida reacts in anger. While it's an effective moment, I suspect it's born of the adult Simón's secular rage at the church which helped spread HIV rather than any real childhood incident.

Artigas might be the acting find of the year. We never feel like we're watching a child star at work, rather like Simón has managed to catch a confused kid going about her business with a hidden camera. Simón doesn't take the easy option of making Frida an easily loveable lass; rather she's a petulant tyke, and her spoilt brat ways allude to her mother's hedonistic nature. Her interactions with her new younger sister Anna are emotionally cruel at times, like when she commands the younger girl not to play with any of her toys. At one point her behaviour around Anna threatens to take a dark turn and send the film into Bad Seed territory.

Summer 1993 review

As her new surrogate mother, Marga struggles to balance a sensitivity to Frida's precarious situation with dealing with her increasing petulance. Frida's presence clearly takes a toll on her relationship with Esteve, whom we see relegated to sleeping on the couch at one point. Both Marga and Esteve skirt around the issue of discussing Frida's loss with the child until it builds to a heartbreaking yet hopeful climax, in which we're reminded that for all her precociousness and narcissistic ways, Frida is simply a child who's unable to comprehend why life has dealt her such a cruel blow. I'm glad she grew up to be such a promising filmmaker.

Summer 1993 is on MUBI UK now.