Outside a farmhouse in the Spanish countryside, two little cousins play together unobserved. The slightly older girl, Frida (Laia Artigas), lays dramatically on a lounge chair, wearing large sunglasses, shorts, rubber boots, and only a black feather boa for a top. “Ask me again,” she suggests to her smaller companion, Anna (Paula Robles).
“Mommy, do you want to play with me?” Anna asks.
“Be a good little girl, and let me rest.”
A pause. “Mommy, do you want to play with me?”
Frida sits up and hunches over a little to look fondly into Anna’s face. She says (in a voice of such startling maturity that we can sense the presence of the adult she is mimicking): “Darling, I love you so much, so very much, that I can never say no to you. What should we play?”
We soon learn that Frida’s own mother died recently, ostensibly of pneumonia, but really of something much more untoward--something that makes family friends whisper and Frida's Grandmother mutter vague remarks about her late daughter's “bad decision-making.” Now Frida has come to live with her uncle, his wife, and their daughter (Anna). We only learn about Frida’s former life in moments like this one, in the surfacing of small griefs or memories of indistinct origin.
The young actress playing Frida (Laia Artigas) has a disarmingly plaintive face. Watching Artigas as Frida, I feel a protective instinct toward her. The receptiveness of her eyes and ears is a tragedy in itself, like a smashed window in winter that lets cold air inside unmitigated. Frida looks on, silent and expressionless, as her family argues in code about what to do with her. It tears at my heart to watch her watch her Uncle Esteve and his daughter Anna do their evening bath time with a tenderness that Frida can’t share.
Esteve insists that both girls have the same soap and the same nightdresses--one for each--but in his tone of delivery, it is evident that he has to say this, that if he didn’t, his implied adoptive parent’s guilt would be too obvious. It feels as if there is a finite amount of love available in this family, and Frida just doesn’t quite fit. When put so bluntly, it’s clear how false and ridiculous this notion is--that there can be some limit to familial love--but it’s still such a difficult truth to recognize. It’s so difficult, in fact, that it’s uncertain whether the family will recognize it at all.
There is nothing cruel or callous about Marga (Bruna Cusí) and Esteve (David Verdaguer) acting as parents to Frida. They cope nobly with their own challenges: the loss of Frida’s mother also means that Esteve has just lost his sister, while Marga is, understandably, struggling to adapt to the needs and habits of an unexpected addition to her brood. Still, they hold a responsibility to make this family work that is sometimes frustratingly obvious to us in the audience. They are the adults whereas Frida is a child. Frida needs love so urgently that it’s a potential catastrophe.
Subtle moments in this movie remind me of my own childhood with my little sister Julia, especially since we're working on our coverage of this film together (with me acting in the role of her coach). My parents laugh when they tell us stories about when I tried to "protect" her and "nurture" her (and maybe the quotes I use aren't necessary, because in some ways I did protect and nurture her, as she did me!). We were always told not to walk on the driveway, and once when my toddler sister stepped onto the forbidden pavement for half a second, I yanked her away, crying, "I almost lost my best sister!" On several occasions in our childhood, when one of us had a minor emergency or a bit of bleeding, nurses would have to care for both of us: one for the actual wound, and the other for the shock of seeing her sister in pain.
What so impresses me is the delicacy with which filmmaker Carla Simón presents these facts of the human heart. In Summer 1993, people hardly talk about anything directly because it’s too painful, because there are children present, or just because that’s how families work. Instead, they feel things out, they rely on the constancy of each other’s company that allows for problems never to be fully acknowledged. We can feel these facts in the sting of a harsh word thrown at a child by her new parent, and in the stress of the sight of children running on steep uneven paths or near creeks.
It’s impossible to say whether everything will be okay until a potential disaster actually strikes, or until, beyond the scope of this story, miraculous and completely normal all at once, these children grow up safe and unscathed.
Editor's Note: Summer 1993 (Estiu 1993) has received numerous major awards at film festivals all around the world, including Best First Feature at the 2017 Berlin International Film Festival. Does Summer 1993 pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test? Absolutely!
© Amelie Lasker (5/31/18) FF2 Media
Top Photo: Frida (Laia Artigas) and Esteve (David Verdaguer) dance together at an end of summer festival.
Middle Photo: Anna (Paula Robles) and Frida (Laia Artigas) at play.
Bottom Photo: Frida (Laia Artigas) with Esteve (David Verdaguer).
Photo Credits: Lucía Faraig