Sundance 2020: “Summertime” Is Hot Mess Worth Cherishing

Summertime Photo: Sundance Institute

Sandwiched between a rough start and too tidy of an ending, Carlos López Estrada’s latest finds love in its large ensemble.

“The sewage water smelt like butterscotch,” a young woman (Mila Cuda) muses. The contradictions are inert, the delivery self-serious, the writing okay but sold as something much more. Elsewhere, Tyris (Tyris Winter) berates a waitress for a restaurant’s prices. They go on a rant and submit a scathing Yelp review before pretending to choke for the sake of a free meal. Their behavior reproachable and their words petty, the movie still seems to side with them. And at this point, it would seem that we’re off to the races with Summertime.

Well, not quite. Carlos López Estrada’s follow-up to Blindspotting is, to say the least, the type of movie that makes a surprising about-face after 20 minutes or so. Set over the course of one July day, it takes a neorealist base and warps it into the body of a musical, following an ensemble piece of 25. But it isn’t music: with each character comes a spoken word poem, a fade between the inner and the outer. It’s incredibly uneven at points and obnoxious at its worst, but when it finds its stride, it’s that kind of livelihood that’s too infectious to deny.

In some ways, that makes its missteps all the more bizarre. Estrada, who shares a story by credit with Vero Kompalic, approaches most characters with a similar empathy. All of the performers write their respective poems, but Estrada approaches most characters with a similar empathy. Its uniformity is its greatest weakness. It helps, then, when Summertime unravels its connections and its characterizations, allowing them to breathe in tandem with the environments.

And—despite the cliché—it’s Los Angeles itself often giving the most pathos. It’s a maze of cultures, one that the most privileged have staved into the straight and narrow. The structure is tenuous and pointedly so, but there’s a breathlessness to the pace that helps distract from the contrivances at hand. One character passes by another; their words give way to another world. They tessellate into a racial, economic, and genderless mosaic that not only allows the performances to live by their work but also finds the individualism of the collective.

It’s that clash against clash from the wannabe iconoclasts. It’s coated in the sand and comes from the sounds, and it’s a mess that manages to teem with life.

Is that to say that Summertime is innovative? No, not really—this sort of thing has been done several times before and much more consistently at that. The dialogue is shoddiest when it plays it straight and the shifts between reality and fantasy work better on a macro level than scene-to-scene. But while these issues extend to a resolution that ultimately shows itself to be a bit too cut and dry, it’s well-staged. (It also boasts great work from Marquesha Babers as a young woman struggling with her ex.)

Ultimately, it becomes a matter of overlooking its flaws. Once Summertime integrates its themes into the characters, a real sense of world comes about. It’s somewhere between those alleyways, underneath that spray paint. It’s that clash against clash from the wannabe iconoclasts. It’s coated in the sand and comes from the sounds, and it’s a mess that manages to teem with life.

Summertime is playing in the NEXT section of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival and is currently seeking distribution.

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