CUFF Review: 'Summertime' Offered a Unique but Unfocused Snapshot of L.A. Directed by Carlos López Estrada
Starring Tyris Winter, Marquesha Babers, Maia Mayor, Austin Antoine, Bryce Banks, Amaya Blankenship, Bene't Benton, Gordon Ip, Jason Alvarez
Published Apr 26, 2021Director Carlos López Estrada's first feature, 2018's Blindspotting, succeeded in showing a place both as it is and how it feels. His follow-up, Summertime, doesn't manage this as well.
Blindspotting was rooted in the Bay Area, with Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal's characters feeling specific to that place. If either were plucked out and dropped anywhere else, it would be a story about their displacement.
Summertime has a different approach to capturing a location. The movie pulls together pieces by a bus load of poets and performers doing their own work, playing the citizens of a Los Angeles that's by turns everyday and grandiose.
Through the course of an imagined day, we meet: a couple attending relationship counselling, a frustrated fast food worker, a daughter grappling with her mother's anxieties about her future, aspiring hip-hop artists, and a Yelper whose angst runs deeper than the cost of avocado toast, among others. Their episodes intersect and culminate in spoken-word performances, varied in their staging and tones. Together, they're a quilt of the diversity of the city. López Estrada's camera finds the next performance in different ways, sometimes following a character out of a scene and happening upon the next, sometimes flowing off in another direction entirely.
To accommodate the poetic styles at play, Summertime requires a freer hand than the traditionally-plotted Blindspotting or Disney's Raya and the Last Dragon, on which he's one of two directors. The filmmaker's looseness helps capture some of the feeling of what's normally a live medium.
This all works on occasion, seeing styles of performance not always familiar to the screen along with a variety of perspectives and a cinematic style that allows room to breathe. These moments feel like an L.A. you might not find elsewhere. Some of the work here is cursory, though. Introductions like "That's John, he's a music producer" are thin at best, and trusting some of these poets for reaction shots may have been an overreach.
You can accept that the stories here are told in a different register, apart from even other anthology films, and that part of the thesis of Summertime is how poetry comes in different forms from everyday moments. The whole they come together to form is uneasy, though, with anecdotes feeling incomplete and others sitting strangely next to one another.
The collision of perspectives can be rewarding. At one moment late in the film, the camera is pulling through a mostly-full bus. Some people are recognizable from earlier in the movie. Some riders just have looks that suggest characters. At its strongest, Summertime could zero in on any one of them. Finding a complete expression of an eclectic community worthy of that treatment would be difficult; a flawed handling can occasionally lock in on that sentiment with grace and be worthwhile.
Calgary Underground Film Festival runs online from April 23 to May 2, 2021. Get more information at the festival's website. (Good Deed Entertainment)