Childhood is supposed to be a safe, idyllic, untroubled place.
Yet for a million different reasons that are as diverse as the various failings of the human race, it fails to be the fairytale dream it’s supposed to be, overwhelming young growing minds with the kinds of challenges and traumas no one should encounter until they’re an adult (and not even then if at all possible but grown-ups are at least somewhat armed with the ability to handle the messy vagaries of life).
Estiu 1993 or Summer 1993, based on the life of Carla Simón who wrote and directed the Catalan-Spanish film, explores what happens one six-year-old girl Frida (Laia Artigas) is forced to leave the only life she’s ever known in Barcelona following the death of her parents.
While the film never explicitly comes out and states what happened to her parents, subsequent conversations point to the fact that they were junkies who ended up contracting HIV/AIDS at the height of the crisis when ignorance was rife and options for long-term management of the condition were next-to-no-existent.
In the end, while how the parents died does affect Frida’s life to some extent – the scene where she hurts herself playing and bleeds quietly but forcefully underlines how people reacted out of fear, not understanding in the early Nineties – the issue is more how someone so young processes such a loss, especially when it has the effect of sending her to a world wholly different to her own.
Sent to live with her mother Neus’s brother, Esteve (David Verdaguer), his wife Marga (Bruna Cusí) and their daughter Anna (Paula Robles), who very much want her, she reacts much as you would expect any child to, with a mix of uncertainty, quiet acquiescence, rebellion and escapism.
The performance by Laia Artigas is phenomenally good, evincing this range of emotions with a palpable sense of disclocation, beginning in Barcelona where she is almost always the centre of attention, with the various adults, including her grandparents and aunts hovering off to the side, busy with packing up the lives of Frida’s parents and of course, the young girl herself.
You know there’s a lot going on behind the facade, that Frida may look quietly accepting of her new lot in life, going where she is directed, but as Summer 1993 progresses it becomes clear that it’s more shock than anything else at work here.
As she slowly becomes accustomed to her new life – keep in mind that for much of the film “accustomed” does not equal “acceptance”, more an interim uncertainty about how handle a markedly new set of life circumstances (it makes sense – she’s just a kid, after all) – she begins to push back, in ways small and life-threateningly large, at least for Anna who ends up as the recipient of Frida’s cruel acts of defiance.
You feel for Anna, who’s only four and utterly excited about and devoted to her new sister, since she’s the one, more than even Esteve and Marga who bears the weight of Frida understandable inability to wholly adapt to her new life out in the countryside hours away from Barcelona.
It would be easy to think of Frida as some kind of mini-devil incarnate, dispassionately lashing out the person least able to defend herself or work out what’s being done to her, but if you consider what she’s experienced in her short life from junkie, likely inattentive parents (that much is clear when you see her play “Mothers and Fathers” with Anna) to a life that is much more normal than what she’s known but a million miles from where she is most comfortable.
Not helping matters is the understandable over-indulgence of her grandparents who have sought to give her the love she’s missed out on, an approach which has had the effect of leaving Frida spoiled and uncannily able to manipulate the people around her because she knows it elicits a positive response.
Cleverly, Summer 1993 doesn’t immediately offer an easy solution on its languid way to an indeterminate final act, choosing to keep the low key drama – this is a film that perhaps dawdles a little too much at times but in so doing it captures the slow, almost unchanging nature of time and reality from a child’s perspective – on its toes to the very end.
While Esteve and Marga find their patience tried at times, and Frida does occasionally delve into minimalist demon spawn from hell territory (again usually at poor Anna’s uncomprehending expense), it’s all very realistic in keeping with the fact that this is a story about a young uprooted, unsettled, uncertain child who reacting less as a monster and more as an ill-equipped small human well and truly out of her depth, despite now being in a loving home.
In that type of scenario, there is no immediate happy-ever-after and sometimes not at all, and Summer 1993 wisely stays true to that, offering Frida as a work in progress who will likely come good but not in the road-to-Damascus fashion so beloved of Hollywood and its cookie cutter easy answers.
That is the joy of this remarkable film – it’s willingness to let the reality in and eschew the fairytale, ushering us into a world that is bucolic in its setting and loving in its familial offering but which can’t instantly mend a problem years in the making, as true to life as you’re going to get in a world where problems and solutions don’t always find their way together.