REVIEW: Summertime (Sundance 2020)
Carlos Lopez Estrada directed one of the best films of 2018, Blindspotting (written by Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal). Estrada had collaborated with Diggs and Casal before this, directing music videos by Diggs’ experimental rap collective clipping. He also filmed BARS – a live musical theatre and rap medley workshop in New York, which Casal and Diggs founded. The blurring of lines between spoken-word and verse performance, improvising, rapping (including rap battles) and poetry has been a huge feature of much of the work that Estrada, Diggs and Casal have done and this bled into Blindspotting. BARS creates a space for young people to write, develop and explore work that uses verse including music, poetry, rap and heightened language. In Estrada’s latest film, Summertime, he has very much adopted that approach (this time without Diggs or Casal’s involvement), with the young cast writing their own songs, raps and monologues which feature in the film. The film has thirty writing credits, which gives you some sense of how many elements Estrada was working with and had to weave a story around. Summertime is set on one day in Los Angeles and follows the intersecting lives of around 25 young people.
The phrase “love-letter to the city” may be an over-used cliche but if it were ever to be applied, this is surely it. As someone who has lived on the outskirts of LA for three years, flew to Sundance and chose this as their first film on their schedule, Summertime has the ability to make you immediately homesick and nostalgic for a place you’ve just left. This is not the idealised LA of something like La La Land, it is a film that gives you a true sense of the diversity of the city’s neighbourhoods and people. There is a little nod to Damien Chazelle’s musical in one of the best sequences, which features Paolina Acuna-Gonzales opining on the power of red lipstick, with a chorus of women in red dresses stopping traffic in the street behind her. This was also a much more recognisable LA than last year’s Under the Silver Lake. This is as much a tribute to LA as Blindspotting was to Oakland and indeed, one of the main threads follows Tyris (Tyris Winter) attempting to find a good burger at a joint that hasn’t been gentrified (gentrification was one of the main themes of Blindspotting).
With a cast this large and so many disparate elements, some are obviously going to work better than others. Again, your tolerance of teen poetry will vary, but for those of us who have ever worked with young people – particularly getting them to express themselves and be creative, imaginative and artistic, there is much to be enjoyed here. One of the highlights is Marquesha (Marquesha Babers), who we see in therapy at the start and by the end, delivering one of the most moving and bombastic speeches to a boy who has wronged her. Yes, another Blindspotting comparison again, but this is almost as good as Diggs’ incredible speech at the end of that film which is almost delivered into the camera. It is that captivating of a performance from someone who, like nearly all of the cast-members, is an inexperienced high schooler.
It is enjoyable to watch the cast almost pass the baton from one to another, as if in a relay race, reflecting the chance encounters one can have in a city like LA on a daily basis. One of the connecting tissues is Jason, a graffiti tagger who keeps cropping up and having to stay one step ahead of the cops. The film’s finale (in which a large group from the cast come together in a limousine and take a trip to one of those hill-top locations with a stunning view of the city that we see in most LA-set movies) does start to veer into cheesy territory, with its “pocket full of dreams” cliches. Up until this point, the film has stayed refreshingly clear of Hollywood “city of stars” type references. The dreams of these “characters” seem to be much more about acceptance and tolerance than ambitions of fame or celebrity. Estrada has entrusted these young people to use their voices to tell their stories, it is certainly a big risk and was never going to be an unqualified seamless success. However, tapping into the raw talent and letting them be fresh and honest is more interesting than many more glossy, streamlined films. This experiment is certainly worth diving into and you will likely come out feeling two things – a desire to visit Los Angeles (or a feeling of pride in your home city) and a sense of hope for the future.