Much of the magic of being a movie star lies in stillness—reacting subtly, or not at all, while the audience projects what it will on your face. Laia Artigas doesn’t qualify as a star quite yet; she plays Frida, the six-year-old Spanish heroine of “Summer 1993,” in Catalan and Spanish with English subtitles. But her sweet, still features tell a tale of torment and growth in this autobiographical, and startlingly astute, debut feature by Carla Simón.
Before the film begins, Frida’s life has been transformed by two deaths—her father’s, and more recently her mother’s, both for reasons unknown to her. (The key to the mystery lies in the movie’s title. In 1993, few in Spain or anywhere else understand the AIDS virus and no one speaks freely about its ravages.) As the film opens, Frida sits in her mother’s apartment in Barcelona, watching its contents being put in moving boxes. Her expression could be mistaken for calmness, but it’s actually a detachment that will color her behavior for weeks and months to come in the radiant surroundings of the Catalan countryside. That’s where her aunt Marga and uncle Esteve live, and where Frida finds a new home that would be, in other circumstances, heaven on earth for a bright little girl from a big city.
For a while it seems as if Frida may be taken out of herself by the summer’s seductive beauty: this is the area around Girona, and it’s never looked lovelier. Marga and Esteve are young and welcoming, and their four-year-old daughter, Anna, is happy to have a new big sister to play with in the meadows and hills surrounding the house. But Carla Simón isn’t one to settle for easy enchantment. She finds in Frida—and clearly recalls in herself—a fragile soul struggling to recover from shattering injury. This child feels so isolated and unloved that she becomes secretive, devious and manipulative, even dangerous.
“Summer 1993” was photographed with warmth and unswerving intensity by Santiago Racaj, and Carla Simón has used both of her young performers brilliantly. Her film is about internal things, about the secret recesses of children’s minds. For all their caring and generosity, Marga and Esteve can’t begin to imagine what Frida is feeling, or, for that matter, what transpires in the fantasy life shared by Frida and their own tender, vulnerable Anna. The film can be manipulative in its own right: I felt transfixed and put upon, in equal measure, by a constant sense of danger. (Who knew that a hair dryer could cast such a dark shadow?) But the filmmaker also wants us to know how resilient children can be. Some creatures are able to grow new limbs. Frida, given more than half a chance after demanding it, achieves something no less remarkable. She grows new joy and hope.
I’m Joe Morgenstern. I’ll be back on KCRW in a couple of weeks with more reviews.