A 6-year-old orphan goes to live with her uncle’s family in Carla Simón’s sensitive, understated autobiographical debut, “Summer 1993.” Striking a careful balance between narrative and atmosphere, the writer-director paints a vivid portrait of a light-filled summer when a little girl has to face the loss of her mother and integration into a new nuclear family. The film parcels out just enough information to satisfy attentive viewers, and though the main character is a moppet (and the film premiered in Berlin’s Generation Kplus section), it’s decidedly not a kids film, as acknowledged by the first feature jury’s top prize. Finding the right audience may be difficult, but this delicate sleeper is worth the effort.
In the opening scenes, Frida (Laia Artigas) is almost always alone in the frame, or if someone else is present, they’re generally only partly visible. The visuals underline the bewildered little girl’s sense of loneliness while adults around her busily pack up her home in Barcelona, keeping her out of the way. It’s not that the grown-ups aren’t warm and loving when they address her, but she could use some attention: Her mom just died of AIDS-related pneumonia (it’s not clear when her father died), and now she’s going to live in the countryside with her uncle Esteve (David Verdaguer), his wife Marga (Bruna Cusí), and their 4-year-old daughter Anna (Paula Robles).
In many ways, Frida is lucky since her uncle’s family is caring and attentive, but understandably her emotions are unstable, and she’s in unfamiliar rural surroundings. As expected, she acts out on occasion, her stubbornness and occasional petulance a normal reaction to her profound sense of displacement — so it’s not all that surprising when she intermittently behaves in a cruel manner towards Anna.
Grandma Maria (Isabel Rocatti) taught her the Lord’s Prayer, and she leaves offerings for her mother at a homemade shrine to the Virgin Mary in the woods, but this childish mimicking of adult behavior brings little comfort. As Simón herself learned from experience, only time will “normalize” Frida’s situation.
One of the most striking elements of the film is the way it avoids sentimentality while reproducing the inchoate, conflicting emotions of a child unable to know how to process her trauma. Scenes between Frida and Anna are remarkable for their unaffected naturalism, and while the older girl knows that she has a developmental advantage over her cousin, she’s also painfully aware that Anna is the one continually reaping the unbroken love of her parents. At a village dance, Frida watches as Marga and Esteve joyfully bounce along to the music while Anna hugs her father’s leg. She’d be welcomed to join, but it will take more time for Frida to feel like a full-fledged member of this family.
Simón’s serendipitous casting doesn’t stop at the two tots but extends to Cusí and Verdaguer as the uncle and aunt, who unquestioningly embrace their roles as Frida’s new parents, rather than simply parental substitutes. Their warmhearted interactions as both couple and caregivers, notwithstanding occasional, understandable exasperation, suffuses the difficult situation with benevolent stability. The actors’ sincere generosity of spirit surely allowed young Artigas the safe space to get in touch with emotions like loneliness that would have been tough to handle in less sympathetic company.
Cinematographer Santiago Racaj (“Magical Girl”) treats his camera as a living, breathing observer, often viewing the world at Frida’s level (with occasional p.o.v. shots). More people share the little girl’s frame as the film progresses, though she often still remains a solitary figure, looking out at her new, disorienting rural surroundings with uncertainty. For the viewer though, summer’s verdant abundance and long daylight hours are comforting rather than oppressive, and while the film is set in 1993, paralleling Simón’s own experience, the production design wisely avoids making the period feel too distant from today.