In the opening scene of Carla Simón’s autobiographical Summer 1993, the camera hangs behind the head of six-year-old Frida (Laia Artigas) as she watches fireworks exploding above. Frida’s upward gaze is appropriate given the film’s focus on events whose significance go over the girl’s head, foremost among them her move from Barcelona to a small Catalan village following the sudden death of her parents. The film prioritizes Frida’s inexpressible sense of displacement and anger throughout scenes between the girl and her aunt, Marga (Bruna Cusí), that function as tender expressions of empathy. It’s these moments shared between a young girl and her new guardian that will become the basis for Frida’s emerging identity in relation to her past.
Unlike Jason Reitman’s Tully, which sensationalizes its narrative about postpartum depression by using mental illness as a rug-pulling plot point, Summer 1993’s unwavering devotion to thoroughly realizing Frida’s childhood confusion isn’t a prelude to violence or grist for a twist ending. The small miracle of this film is how its engine runs on its maker’s desire to inhabit the rhythms of being a child who’s reckoning with traumatic emotions that are only beginning to emerge at the forefront of her consciousness.
Summer 1993 locates itself within a specific point in time that manifests as a series of peripheral details, an era prior to the internet and cellphones that made the countryside a place that could actually remain separate from city life. Frida’s sensory experiences dictate many scenes, from watching the family cat, to attending a local festival featuring carnivalesque performances, to playing “grown ups” with her younger cousin, Anna (Paula Robles). At bath time, the girls have to be convinced by Esteve (David Verdaguer), Frida’s uncle, to exit the tub in a timely fashion because they’re having so much fun. The film spends extended time within daily activities that demonstrate the way a child becomes lost in feelings of joy—when Frida’s underlying pain momentarily subsides in favor of embracing the here and now.
The film’s screenplay is impressive for how crucial plot points emerge as backdrops to the explicit purpose of a scene. When Frida’s grandparents (Fermí Reixach and Isabel Rocatti) come to visit one day, they casually, and moralistically, discuss Frida’s mother, with Frida barely registering the importance of this particular conversation. Simón structures Summer 1993 to withhold the exact cause of Frida’s parents’ death, though snippets of exchanges imply that they died of AIDS-related causes.
Expressing shame over their daughter’s lifestyle, the grandparents represent Spain’s repressive social order; rather than mourn their child, they allow their pain to morph into shame, and have no reservations about expressing their anger in Frida’s presence. It’s significant that, in June 1993, Spanish Prime Minister Felipe González’s Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party formed a pact with the nationalist faction of political parties in Catalonia as a compromise for government reform. Although this event is unremarked upon in the film, Simón deftly alludes to the era’s surrounding politics in which rural traditions clash with the more progressive social measures of city life.
Summer 1993 remains at its core a tightly wound examination of childhood psychology. Late in the film, Frida becomes antagonistic toward Anna, and in one extended sequence leaves the younger girl behind in the woods and leads Marga to believe that Anna has gone missing. As Frida conceives a plan to run away from home, the film appears to be drifting toward a tidy conclusion. Simón, thankfully, routes these developments through Frida’s fragility, bringing the child’s sense of displacement and rebellion to a logical conclusion that avoids exploiting the girl’s trauma for shock value. The impulse to understand how society determines human behavior and, in turn, how a child’s response to grief depends upon a network of adults capable of reconciling their own ugly feelings defines Summer 1993 as an essential statement of cinema as both personal and national therapy.