Pihla Pekkarinen reviews Carlos López Estrada’s ode to Los Angeles youth.
Following the success of Blindspotting, Carlos López Estrada’s second feature film, Summertime, is intended to be a love letter to L.A., told by the teenagers who inhabit it; a lament over gentrification and loss of spirit, a portrait of the “true youth” of the city of angels. However, the film fails to achieve the emotional poignancy it is aiming for; the tone is too inconsistent, and the jokes provide only brief moments of levity in what is overall neither a particularly funny nor moving film. The emotional climaxes flop, failing to provoke much sympathy, let alone a single tear.
The film is described as a “free-verse poem,” featuring twenty-five teenagers performing spoken word poetry. This form – which speaks directly to the audience and necessitates their listening – is meant to be a gut punch, shattering the listener’s view of reality and bringing about a new perspective. But this doesn’t quite translate to the screen as Estrada had perhaps hoped. Granted, the featured poems are written and performed by high school students, but some of the pieces are impressive. However, the film fails to do them justice, because in spite of the fact that this art comes from them, the entire situation feels inauthentic. The characters seem like they are performing for university admissions boards rather than for each other.
The problem with Summertime is the classic “show, don’t tell” dilemma; poets monologuing about how they don’t feel part of their family, or how much they miss home, is simply not as poignant as literally watching characters go through and experience these relatable issues. Seeing a character fall in love only to get brutally rejected is much more heart-wrenching than watching her tell you about how depressed it made her to be told she was undateable. This example is taken straight from the film; in what is supposed to be a moment of standing up for herself and finally owning her narrative, a character details awful things said by a past unrequited love. He told her she was ugly, men only liked her for her breasts, that she was undateable and no-one would ever love her. While evoking sympathy, none of these statements really hammer home, because she is the one saying them. The film does not allow viewers to come to any conclusions of their own. It tells them what to think, how to feel, and when to feel it.
The film floats in an awkward liminal space between documentary and fiction. In fiction, actors play parts outside themselves, allowing them to be ugly and complicated; in documentaries, directors work to capture the underbelly of people, an angle their subjects are unwilling to expose by choice. Yet, this film does neither. The characters are too guarded, unwilling to relinquish control enough to allow us to see them and relate to them. The glass wall between audience and character is bulletproof. Overall, the film would be improved if it were not only written by teenagers, but directed by them too. Summertime feels too much like a performance, like teens who were given a chance by a professional and wanted to make the most of it, but in doing so, lose all authenticity and true emotion that their original performances on that spoken word night surely had.
Summertime premiered at the Sundance Film Festival 2020. No UK release date has been announced yet. Check out an interview with the film’s stars below: