Despite having the date it’s set in right in its title, Summer 1993 is one of the most comfortingly timeless films released all year. A child’s eye view of familial loss and the freedom of the endless summers of one’s youth, Carla Simon’s autobiographical film not only has the isolation from time that childhood provides, but also an idyllic rural Catalan setting that seldom gives clues to its era. It’s a remarkably assured and unfussy debut from a young filmmaker, made incredibly impressive by the brilliant child performances that Simon conjures from her six and three year old lead duo.
The six year old is Frida (Laia Artigas) – a stand-in for Simon herself – recently orphaned and sent to live with her aunt Marga (Bruna Cusi) and uncle Esteve (David Verdagauer). Numbed by shock and a grief too enormous to express, Frida is cut off and cold, behaving especially badly when alone with Marga. Her mother’s recent death is presumably AIDS-related (there are references to her disease being ‘a new one’, and parents evacuate the area every time Frida gets a cut or scrape), discouraging other children from playing with her. Frida’s only unambiguous ally is toddler Anna (Paula Robles), an uncomplicated bundle of joy and older-sister worship.
Every scene with just the kids is a wonder. With stars this young, Simon surely had to keep the script loose, and is rewarded with adorable authenticity. Anyone with a sibling will recognise themselves in the sequences where Frida and Anna play, Frida setting the rules of the games and Anna confused but thrilled to be included, committing fully to any character Frida asks her to play. The tiny scope of Summer 1993 allows for a richly detailed look at the minutiae of unstructured summer life, punctuated by sublimely timed comedic beats from toddlers, cats, and even a cabbage.
There is very little plot to speak of, and even the development of the family’s relationships and dynamics doesn’t follow any sort of defined path. Simon’s commitment to realism is absolute – she firmly banishes non-diegetic sound, and keeps any visual flourishes to a bare minimum, choosing to let the child acting speak for itself as evidence of her immense directorial talent. For the most part, this is absolutely the right choice, and, despite the bereaved-child tragedy at its heart, Summer 1993 is a deeply relaxing watch, but it does also mean it can be repetitive and drag in certain stretches.
After premiering at Berlin in February 2017, it’s taken a very long time for Summer 1993 to finally reach UK cinemas, but given its own very leisurely pace, perhaps that is fitting. If you can find it showing, it’s well worth seeking out, both on its own merits and so you can smugly say that you were in on the ground floor for someone is sure to be one of the major European writer-directors of the coming decades.