There are at least 27 characters in Carlos López Estrada’s vibrant Summertime, made up of spoken word poetry from real-life Los Angeles-based youth performers of marginalized groups who sing, dance and wax poetically on living in the City of Angels. The expansive cast and Estrada’s innovative spin on the network narrative illustrate a stunning vision of Los Angeles, but the film’s reliance on representation is limited, resulting in a flat rather than exciting piece of work.
Taking place over a day, Summertime follows families, friends and single characters who cope with a range of issues including gentrification, mental illness, helicopter parents and homelessness. Among the most affecting of the restless teens are the college-bound Bene’t (Bene’t Benton) and Amaya (Amaya Blankenship), who, in a thoughtful sequence that marries shots of the girls’ childhood houses to their measured voices, speak to the rush of excitement of leaving home for the first time while experiencing nostalgia for one’s upbringing.
There is also a stirring dance sequence in Summertime on a busy street between a beer shop and a Mexican restaurant. Paolina (Paolina Acuña-González) projects irritation and love for her mother (Gabriela de Luna) on a red dress-wearing waitress (Yuliana Maladano) who suddenly frolics on the street and begins gyrating and whirling to the poetry of Paolina, who both admonishes and respects her domineering yet protective mother for not allowing her to attend late-night parties. It’s a magical scene that manages to detail a Latinx household with an inventive, visual twist unique to the film. Estrada and cinematographer John Schmidt utilize the camera as a free bird that soars above city spaces and slides between bodies, embodying a cinematic language that pays attention to the gaps between words rather than the words themselves.
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Despite Summertime’s affable charm and fresh filmmaking, the representation of marginalized groups in place of intriguing conflict runs bland and reflects lazy writing. In a peculiar scene, a white male teenager requests that an older lesbian couple not to kiss in front of two kids, whose lesbian babysitter (Mila Cuda) aggressively recites a poem deriding the homophobe. The teen abruptly leaves the bus, and he’s not seen again. It’s a bizarre scene that is only matched by the penultimate poem sequence when Marquesha (Marquesha Babers) drops by the home of a former crush who made fun of her weight upon learning that she liked him. Marquesha scolds the fatphobic character, who is never explicitly mentioned before the scene. Such segments feel too sudden to achieve a dramatic impact. The traditional devices of storytelling, which use persistent conflict to build to a climax, are superseded by reactions to the logic of bigotry. Thus, counterpoints to prejudice are mainly used as the crutch to set up the scenes.
Summertime feels wrong-headed, even if its heart is in the right place. This is best encapsulated in the handling of the most magnetic characters, Tyris (Tyris Winter) and Sophia (Maya Mayor). The homeless Tyris fights gentrification by using Yelp to give poor reviews to new restaurants that sell avocado toasts for $15. Though the youth’s qualms with such price gouging are understandable, the critique of gentrification can only go so far as it ignores assessing a review platform with a history of unfair business practices with its clients. Sophia’s obsessive infatuation with a former lover is framed as a symptom of her mental illness, a surprising arc that, though commendable for representing mental health, feels unnatural and forced within the confines of her romanticizing sensibilities.
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The creators of Summertime forcibly select other characters and critical points while ignoring others based on representation rather than conflict, which could be more effective in highlighting complex socio-political issues. To depend so heavily on representation might be enough for some viewers, but it results in a film that, like its young characters, is full of unrealized potential.
Mo Muzammal is a freelance film critic based in Southern California. His interests include Pakistani Cinema, Parallel Cinema and film theory.