“Summer 1993” marks the debut feature from writer-director Carla Simon. The autobiographical film flawlessly captures the emotions of a young child dealing with a new family and home after losing both parents. Simon brings an undeniable level of authenticity to the film by shooting in the Catalonia region of Spain at the exact location of her childhood home. At the heart of this beautiful film is the definition of a family and how at times it must be reconstructed. Seven-year-old Laia Artigas delivers an amazing performance as the film’s young protagonist who must adapt to her new surroundings while overcoming the loss of a parent. It is one of the most genuine portraits of youth ever captured on film.
As the film’s title suggests the story takes place in the summer of 1993 as six-year-old Frida (Laia Artigas) leaves her Barcelona home to live with her uncle Esteve (David Verdaguer) and his family; wife Marga (Bruna Cusi) and four-year-old daughter Anna (Paula Robles). Esteve is the brother of Frida’s mother who just passed away from AIDS which also claimed the life of Frida’s father. This was at the height of the epidemic in Spain where the mortality rate reached alarming levels as the infection spread quickly during the heroin boom of the mid-80s.
A six-year-old child doesn’t understand the implications of AIDS and so Frida doesn’t comprehend the nature of her mother’s death especially since none of her relatives are willing to explain how she died. The young girl’s life becomes even more confusing when she is treated as an outcast by those who don’t understand the epidemic fearing that she also may be infected. When Frida scrapes her knee while playing with other kids the parents at the playground scramble to usher their children away leaving the young girl even more bewildered.
The lush green and mountainous area of La Garrotxa in north-east Catalonia provides the backdrop for the film as Frida attempts to adjust to her new family. Esteve and Marga welcome their niece with open arms and begin to love her like their own child, four-year-old Anna who is excited to have a new sister. Despite the outpouring of affection, Frida feels lonely and isolated. She begins to act out by putting Anna in dangerous situations not realizing the implications of her actions.
The performances by the film’s young actors Laia Artigas and Paula Robles are so natural that it feels like we are voyeurs watching the lives of the girls unfold. Simon auditioned over 1,000 children before casting the pair. The natural performances were captured by various methods including shooting the scenes clandestinely by placing the camera out of sight and adult actors Bruna Cusi and David Verdaguer spending as much time as possible with the girls to create a comfort zone easing any tensions on the set.
“Summer 1993” is a very personal film by Carla Simon who shares her story with the world via the wonderful medium of cinema. In one form or another, we can all relate to some childhood experience shared by the film’s two young protagonists. An ingenuous portrait of family, heartbreak, and belonging.
Opens Friday 06/15 in Austin at the AFS Cinema and Regal Arbor 8 @ Great Hills