Welcome to Combing the 100% Club. In this column, I’ll be reviewing and recommending lesser-known members of Rotten Tomatoes’ 100% Club — the site’s trove of films with perfect Tomatometer scores. Follow along to find out why critics love these films, and why you might love them, too.
A head of tousled curls bobs in the air as fireworks crackle and burst nearby. Pipsqueak-sized feet scurry then slow during a game of “Red Light, Green Light.” While a breeze refreshes the stagnant city air, a beady-eyed girl watches the sky flicker, her face lighting up in alternating warm hues.
The cold open in Carla Simón’s film “Summer 1993” (2018) is packed with sensory input, none bit of which feels superfluous. Like the rest of Simón’s reposeful debut, this scene rewards sustained attention.
“Summer 1993” draws heavily from Simón’s life, telling the story of Frida (Laia Artigas), a six-year-old who, after her parents die of AIDS, leaves Barcelona to live with her uncle Esteve (David Verdaguer), his wife Marga (Bruna Cusí) and their four-year-old daughter Anna (Paula Robles) at their farmhouse in the Catalan countryside. At its heart, the film is an impression of Simón’s memory — its cinematography evoking the literal and figurative perspective of a young girl managing grief, though she doesn’t know to call it that yet. With the rustic charm of Luca Guadagnino’s “Call Me By Your Name,” the offbeat family dynamics of “The Florida Project” and the psychological subtext of Victor Erice’s “The Spirit of the Beehive,” “Summer 1993” is a coming-of-age film to relish.
The beautiful feat of “Summer 1993” is its representation of a child seeking to understand illness and death. Frida’s grieving process is especially well-depicted in Simón’s unhurried scenes of children’s play. Though we never see Frida and her mother together, Simón brilliantly reveals their dysfunctional relationship through Frida’s imagination while allowing us to indulge in the endearing comedy of Artigas and Robles’s interactions.
In one scene, Frida cosplays a mother we interpret to be a phantasm of her own. Sporting hot pink lipstick, lime green eyeshadow and a black boa, Frida reclines in a lawn chair, pretending to smoke, while Anna sweetly pleads, “Mommy, do you want to play with me?” In character, Frida replies, “I’m really tired. I need to rest, sweetheart. My whole body is sore” — but when Anna does not acknowledge this answer, Frida continues, “Come on, ask me again.” After rejecting Anna once more, Frida finally gives in, caressing Anna’s face and saying, “Darling, I love you so much, so very much, that I can never say ‘No’ to you. Should we play?” Presumably, Frida learned this inconsistency from her mother.
In another play scene, Anna asks Frida if she’d like to call her mom on a plastic landline. Frida agrees, smiling coyly. After dialing the number, however, she merely waits in the radio silence for a moment then hangs up. Her face turns as she seemingly remembers that it is only fantasy, and the reality that her mother is gone. Immediately following this scene, Frida lashes out by leaving Anna in the forest alone, seemingly reenacting her mother’s abandonment.
As Wendy Ide of The Guardian writes, “There is something awe-inspiring in realising that, to all intents and purposes, what we are seeing is real. The moment-by-moment interplay of emotions and dramatic gestures between these children is effectively innocent of grownup play-acting and pretend.” In this way, Simón’s filming techniques represent memory teetering between imagination and reality. Frida’s play operates as a distancing mechanism for her. Relating to Anna only in imaginary terms, she does not have to process her new family situation. If her new life is not real, neither is her mother’s death.
We see Frida reckoning with reality only in the dark. In dimly lit shots, she sits by Marga’s bedside, begging her menstruating aunt not to get sick like her mother. At night, she prays over her mother — always hushed, always covert. During these scenes, Frida is literally difficult to see or hear, Simón’s reminder of the young girl’s refusal to be seen as vulnerable. In the brightness of the day, Frida neither mentions her mother nor exhibits any affections for her or her new family members.
Nearly every scene in “Summer 1993” uses sensory devices with such intention — from tactile moments like Marga tending to Frida’s skinned knee, to aural ones like Frida waking up to the sound of morning birds and Anna’s singing. By focusing on felt experiences rather than action sequences, Simón trains her viewers to marvel at the world as though they were children, and to sense rather than see Frida’s character development.
Frida uses touch to understand the world, but it is also her primary means for experiencing intimacy. During her move from Barcelona to the Catalan countryside, she carries a baby doll, which she always holds close to her chest. Later, when she arrives at her uncle’s house, she unpacks her dolls one by one, kissing each on the head before lining them up on the mantle. She tells Anna each of their names and which family members gave them to her.
“You know why I got so many dolls?” Frida says. “Because they love me lots. They gave me presents, because they love me lots.” Frida expresses love toward her family members in return by kissing these dolls. Further, her most intimate interactions with Esteve, Marga and Anna come when she is interacting with them physically. She smiles widely when Esteve grabs her to dance; she falls peacefully asleep while Marga strokes her arm; she giggles while jumping on the bed with Anna. These tender scenes are a beautiful reminder of the many ways in which we show and receive love.
The film’s sensory richness also manifests in its warm color palette and jazzy score. For the majority of the picture, the characters are bathed in sunlight. This luminosity lends to a soft portrait of Frida and her family, and even when they are not directly touching, their closeness is emphasized by their shared framing in natural light. The film’s saxophone-dominant instrumentals also give it a certain softness, embodied particularly in Esteve and Marga. Though Frida repeatedly tests their patience — by throwing a comb out the car window or tempting Anna into danger — Esteve and Marga are never severe with her. The film’s visuals and soundtrack pair to form an apt backdrop for Frida’s gradual healing.
At the film’s close, Frida’s mounting anxiety and grief does not lead to any verbal resolutions, but characteristically relies on visceral scenes to reveal Frida’s interiority. In the final scene, Esteve, Frida and Anna wrestle on Esteve and Marga’s bed, their physical entanglement representing Frida’s acceptance of her new family unit. Frida’s and Anna’s giggles even harmonize at points. Abruptly, Frida’s laughter turns to sobs, and Marga rushes to hold her. The final image is of this family of four cuddling on the bed and listening to Frida cry. Even when the screen cuts to black, we continue to hear the sound of her voice. It’s an extremely cathartic finish to a film so concentrated with Frida’s pretense; finally, she feels safe breaking down in front of others.
“Summer 1993” is a truly stunning rendering of a story that is difficult to bear. Simón treats every moment with care, and her cast in turn honors her with performances so raw they feel real. This film is the kind you never want to leave.
Editor’s Note: This article is a review and contains subjective opinions, thoughts and critiques.