For whatever reason, I’ve never been drawn to spoken word poetry. Perhaps this has a little something to do with limited exposure to the art form, but that didn’t stop me from making the assumption that I wouldn’t like Blindspotting director Carlos López Estrada’s second feature, Summertime. The movie puts the spotlight on 25 people whose lives intersect over the course of a July day in Los Angeles. Those roles are played by high school performers who also get writing credits because Estrada set out to make a “spoken-word showcase” where they could combine their own work in a loosely connected fashion. The results are revelatory and inspiring.
While it did take some time to adjust to the format and cadence of the film, once the intoxicating performances and melodic delivery take hold, it never lets go. Summertime plays like a series of vignettes of full, very rich moments. The first of the bunch to really hook me featured Mila Cuda on a public bus professing her sexual orientation to a judgmental passenger. It’s a riveting scene all on its own that also highlights one of the most powerful pieces of connective tissue in Summertime – all of the segments feature young Angelenos embracing who they are and sharing it with the world.
As far as narrative connectors go, that’s where we find one of the Summertime standouts, Tyris Winter. After an incident at a restaurant, we come to learn that Tyris is a frequent and very critical Yelp reviewer. Not only does his portion of the movie boast some of the biggest laughs, but Winter also has a hugely commanding and charming presence.
Truly, everyone in Summertime delivers excellent work and greatly contributes to the desire to just hang out with these characters forever, but there’s one downright remarkable performer that every viewer will be talking about, Marquesha Babers. Her big moment comes towards the tail end of the film when she confronts an ex-boyfriend who didn’t appreciate who she was, giving her a heaping dose of cruel judgment that Marquesha still struggles to get out from under. Perhaps it’s a bit early to make a declaration like this, but I’d be shocked if that moment doesn’t wind up becoming one of the most memorable scenes of the entire year.
Even without a traditional narrative structure, Summertime flies. Editor Jonathan Melin works such wonders with the material and gives the anthology-like format an extremely smooth, enchanting feel. Cinematographer John Schmidt also excels by taking a wildly appropriate naturalistic approach to the visuals, giving the cast room to breathe, move and play but while still managing to give Summertime a cinematic feel. Schmidt’s mobile camera and scene transitions are also instrumental to the pace and flow of the film.
Some of the vignettes in Summertime do suffer from a lack of clarity as far as how they add to the big picture, but this is where the intense passion and enthusiasm for the material comes in handy. Sitting in the MARC Theatre at the film’s Sundance 2020 premiere, it was abundantly clear from the excitement in the room and the passion in Estrada’s introduction that this is a deeply personal film for everyone involved and you could feel it while you’re watching it.
And that’s one of the most incredible things about filmmaking, and all forms of art for that matter – the impact pouring your heart and soul into telling a story can have on another. In this case, not only did Summertime open my eyes to a powerful form of expression I was dismissing, but it also gives viewers the opportunity to experience something that’s important to another. Whether you can relate to these specific experiences or not, sharing such deep truths in such a high energy, raw fashion is bound to make a big impression. Summertime is one big showcase of art, dreams and self-worth, and the value and importance of celebrating that with others. The more films like it, the better.
For more of our Sundance 2020 reviews, click the links below:
- The Assistant
- Bad Hair
- Crip Camp
- Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story
- Miss Americana