“But the child must grow,” writes German psychoanalyst Erich Fromm in his seminal 1956 book “The Art of Loving,” discussing a necessary transition in the relationship between a mother and her progeny. “The very essence of motherly love is to care for the child’s growth, and that means to want the child’s separation from herself.”
In Rodrigo Ruiz Patterson’s delicately complex feature debut “Summer White,” Valeria and her lonesome 13-year-old son Rodrigo seem way overdue for the kind of crucial disjointing Fromm prescribes. Exploring their thorny chapter of parting that eventually arrives — seen from the possessive offspring’s point of view with both caution and empathy — Patterson dances around tricky Freudian themes with nerve and grace, gradually approaching something astute about the boundaries and boundlessness of maternal affection.
Though it gets weighed down by a trace of experimental aimlessness, a languid pace that limits the film’s theatrical prospects, “Summer White” should still appeal to patient art-house crowds, thanks to its deliberate slow-burn tension pitched amid the cracks of Valeria (Sophie Alexander–Katz) and Rodrigo’s (Adrián Rossi) intimate existence. Before the time comes to cut the duo’s metaphorical umbilical cord, Patterson is quick to establish their harmonious closeness, teetering on an uncomfortably precarious line in a purlieu of Mexico City.
Right at the start, Rodrigo climbs onto his mom’s bed and into her arms for a nighttime cuddle like a toddler, so cozily that you’d think he’s crawling back inside Valeria’s womb for fetal comfort. Later on, their habitual peculiarities prove even more bizarre. In one scene, Valeria stands bare-chested next to her son (clearly too old to see his mom unclothed in such manner), while nonchalantly brushing her teeth in front of a mirror. It’s a distressing image that looks utterly primal, even animalistic.
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Still, no one is happier than Rodrigo, who seems stuck in perpetual infancy with his mom’s undivided attention. So when Valeria, clearly in denial about Rodrigo’s extreme attachment, starts a healthy romantic relationship with the caring Fernando (Fabián Corres), Patterson infuses the anxious air with a small amount of relief, however brief. If only Rodrigo could also savor the perks a new parental figure brings along — the short trips to the seaside, the teamwork around the house, all the shopping trips and driving lessons he is welcome to benefit from.
Instead, the young boy brews a hidden hatred toward the person he perceives as a threat to his domain, an escalating dread visually aided by cinematographer María Sarasvati Herrera’s attentive lens. Amplifying both the emotional intensity and the sense of hazard on which Rodrigo dwells, Herrera accentuates grainy textures and sensual tints, as raindrops, colorful neon lights, window reflections and twinkling sunlight add up to a soft, melancholic visual palette. At the same time, she stays unnervingly close to her subjects, toying with our perception of the clan’s physical safety that deepens the restlessness hanging in the air.
All three performers are stellar in dissolving themselves into that atmosphere. Rossi especially delivers a performance of many layers. He is quiet and explosive in equal measure, while Rodrigo grapples with his lost childhood and demoted status, spitefully taking note of Fernando’s paternal masculinity that unseats his own.
In that, Rodrigo sabotages Fernando in doses — his acts, minor and inconsequential at first, take up an alarming dimension later on. Meanwhile, he erupts with destructive energy elsewhere. Assuming a junkyard and a dilapidated RV as his new territory and outlet, he discharges his rage onto clunky objects, smashing, kicking and even burning them, in scenes both perilous and liberating. Patterson roots that dash of freedom in clever sound design. When metal scraps and abandoned debris let out their thuds and thumps, the noise becomes synonymous with Rodrigo’s inner turmoil, an extension of his psyche and release of his voiceless frustrations. It is when his two worlds merge that the happy couple come to terms with the severity of the problem on their hands.
“Summer White” isn’t the kind of film that will offer easy conclusions to the trio’s tricky situation in the end. It doesn’t claim to have urgent points to make on adolescent isolation, parental helplessness and shades of premature masculinity that beg to be shaped in wise hands. But it does absorb those themes in raw, honest and original ways, while putting Patterson on the map with his refined visual language and philosophical depth.