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SIFF 2021 FULL REVIEW – “Summertime”: An Intense Poetry Class, Under the Skies of LA

[NOTE: Previously viewed as a selection of the 2021 Seattle International Film Festival]

Let me start by prefacing I was a high school poetry kid. I can still remember how intense, arduous, enriching it was to be expressive with few words, in the quickest of paces. That’s what good poetry expects out of the writer, that it’s those things, stemming from an overactive sense of creativity. To allow a collective of upstart poets/actors a voice, and the visual equivalent to back them up, is the basis by which the enigmatic Carlos Lopez Estrada builds his low-key yet grandiose ode to the hidden corners within the city of Los Angeles, not unlike his last major work. What Blindspotting managed to do for Oakland and its underground rap scene, Summertime does for the modern-day groove of SoCal, without going the full 8 Mile.

Described best as a patchwork of ideas culminated from the sparks of 25 unique writers with no film experience; the script formed through freeform brainstorming in a summer camp, that unexpected elasticity in structure is clear upon focus, tight in its pacing. It was difficult not to avoid any considerably subtle parallels to Love Actually, both tales linked by strings of a complex spider’s web whose center is a bit sappy if not also welcomely jubilant.

Estrada’s experience in short-form filmmaking (namely music videos) allows for a succinct form of directorial structure, sizing up each vignette to a standard three minutes, not too long, not too short. But in that time, so much in the way of context clues, and a silent rhythm putting words to visuals to cultural trends. Like the trendy Yelp reviewer Tyris (Tyris Winter), whose simple quest packs on a heightened epicness: looking for the perfect Los Angelino hamburger. Starting off in a fancy chic restaurant fresh from changing owner’s hands is not the right place; it only sets him off on an eloquent tirade, one of many. His journey, perhaps close in nature to Bill Nighy’s aged rockstar is the element propelling everything else, a loose thematic thread moving us around the city in one single day.

In other smaller lines, there’s a young woman who professes her romantic identity in defense of a gay couple showing an overly candid level amount of PDA. Followed by best friend busker Rah (Austin Antoine) and Anewbyss (Bryce Banks), whose lack of immediate lyrical direction can’t prevent an A&R manager from launching them to superstardom. Another couple with a relationship on thin ice, only to face an even darker challenge. One of surviving a one-on-one word slam. A mother and daughter at lunch in a similar spat, whose only solution is an elaborate La La Land-esque dance number in front of a grocery. And a nervy fast-food employee (Gordon Ip) unable to cope with random last-minute swings on a busy night. All he’s supposed to do is flip burgers, how can we expect him to go further beyond his comfort zone while keeping up with an influx of orders and poor customer behavior?

It all seems to harken back to the burger hunt, that concept is what keeps Estrada’s vision from rising off the ground like a lost balloon caught in a wind gust. How we veer off as an audience to follow each intersecting storyline is admittedly a little disjointed, uneven. At times, inconsistencies are difficult to ignore, but fair enough to overlook if the mind’s looking at it thru the proper perspective. It may have been an easy go on my mind due to my training in poetry; unlike pantomime or A-B rhyme scheme storytelling, the most strongly worded poems that aren’t simplified for youngsters don’t ever follow a certain path or rhythmic structure. And Estrada sees no reason not to embrace that idea if the motivation is there. Dilettante as its premise appears, the passion is unequaled. The accomplishments of these youthful wordsmiths at the beginning of their careers proves fervent, although not close enough to the uplifting side of Dead Poets Society as one would like. We get close, but not toward the bullseye.

Despite its shortfalls, Estrada meets the challenges of his self-appointed assignment, capturing his landscape and dotting it with likable characters. Although if the focus had been reserved just toward these main “leads” without taking several detours, their time on screen would’ve meant a little more. Tyris is a legit fireball, engulfing the energy of the streets with each step he walks. I could easily imagine what sort of acting future he’ll have, with the right parts. Mr. Ip is anxiety personified, cracking like an egg at the best possible moment. And Banks and Antoine possess a mellow brotherhood between them, a trifle uncharacteristic for heavy handed beat rappers. In this prose, uncharacteristic can make all the sense in the world, keep the viewer invested. The cinematographically proficient eye of John Schmidt (The Guild) further blends in the focal point, make it appear more grounded.

Such a mild investment doesn’t come without some questions, pertaining to its merit. A director like Estrada, continuing to find his footing in the big leagues, is clearly asking those own questions himself, somewhat building the film as he goes. Not the most effective filmmaking approach, but the writing, and the spirit built in, that all cuts through the hesitation, allowing the film’s setting, and its inhabitants to properly bask in the spotlight and sling their truths, unafraid. Summertime probably won’t move the needle a whole ton, but it still delivers a mighty, feel-good punch to the arm not unlike In the Heights, just for the west coast and on a drastically smaller, improvised scale. Like a well-written poem whose words were carefully chosen, it doesn’t need to aim high, it just needs hit a sensical middle ground. For whatever faults land in Estrada’s lap, his work has no issue meeting its audience halfway. (B+; 3.5/5 Horns Up!)

Summertime expands to Seattle (Regal Meridian) this weekend; rated R for language throughout and sexual references; 95 minutes.