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In Summer 1993, a daughter pays for the mistakes of her mother. Six-year-old Frida is left an orphan after her mom dies and is taken in by her aunt and uncle, moved from Barcelona to the unfamiliar and unappealing countryside. They have a daughter of their own, 3-year-old Anna, who makes her presence known the morning after Frida arrives by singing loudly outside her room. Right after the rooster crows—and then it’s time for weird-tasting fresh milk.
Writer-director Carla Simón’s engrossing feature debut is autobiographical; she was once the adoptee, having lost both her parents to AIDS. It’s the disease that plays a role but is never named here, referred to only in glancing descriptions: Frida’s mother had “a new virus” and, according to her grandmother, “made bad decisions.” When Frida (Laia Artigas) skins her knee playing with other kids, a formerly friendly mom shrieks, “Don’t touch her!” to her concerned daughter.
It’s a puzzle whose pieces Simón sprinkles throughout the film but is kept mostly in the background. The fact that the girl lost her mother may also be pushed to the back of your mind as you watch Frida act out. At first, she’s very quiet, and you marvel at how well-behaved she is as she obeys Aunt Marga (Bruna Cusí) and Uncle Esteve (David Verdaguer). She’s initially not as nice to Anna (Paula Robles), but her petulance extends only to telling her that she can’t touch her dolls. (Anna, meanwhile, is nothing but sweetness to her new sister.)
Soon, though, Frida gets a ’tude. She pouts on her way to a doctor’s appointment and lies to Marga that she’s upset about her hair, then throws the comb that Marga offers out the car window. She refuses to tie her shoes, saying that she doesn’t know how—and then Anna copies her, which her mother isn’t thrilled about. Both acts are fairly harmless. But you get the feeling that it’s only a matter of time before Frida’s actions have more serious consequences. Indeed, one incident has Esteve so furious that he asks Frida, “Are you stupid?” Stupid, maybe. In mourning, definitely.
Spain’s submission for the 2018 Academy Awards’ Best Foreign Language Film consideration is a pleasantly ambling rumination on different ways of expressing grief. Simón, who wrote the script with Valentina Viso, tells the story from Frida’s perspective, filling her first summer in her new home with not only brattiness and feeling like an outsider (which Simón conveys expertly) but also delights of the season such as swimming and ice cream. And she gets remarkably natural and, more impressively, emotional performances out of her two leads; if Artigas and Robles hadn’t been able to step up, the film wouldn’t have worked as well as it does.
After 90-odd minutes of Frida—and, in turn, Marga and Esteve—acting hot and cold, Simón offers a touching end that’s abrupt but feels absolutely right. The outburst at its heart will surprise you as much as the characters—and it’s so expertly played, you may feel as if you’re watching a documentary.
Summer 1993 opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cinema.