Summertime review

Carlos Lopez Estrada returns to the Sundance Film Festival two years after directing his feature debut, Blindspotting, a love letter to Oakland which included a few scenes of its lead characters freestyle rapping their emotions aloud to each other. In Summertime, his spiritual follow-up, Estrada turns his lens on Los Angeles and makes lyricism the movie’s dominant form of communication. Written by and starring 25 diverse Los Angeles poets, Summertime is a shaggy, criss-crossing saga of young people in L.A. exploring fame, rejection, ambition, and self-reflection – oh, and one of the characters really, really wants a cheeseburger. Picture a DVD of Richard Linklater’s Slacker being passed around as a totem in a slam poetry class, and that gets close to approximating the experience of watching this film.

Estrada attended a spoken word poetry workshop in the summer of 2019 and was so inspired by what he heard that he decided to collaborate with the participants to blend their stories into a narrative feature. The resulting film has an anthology feel as it follows one character who pours their heart out, only for the roving camera to gently shift over to a different character passing by outside and follow them for a while. There’s a singing, skating guitarist on Venice Beach. Two wannabe rappers rise from nobodies to major players over the course of a single day, only to come to a surprising conclusion by the end of their journey. A struggling couple attend a therapy session overseen by a doctor whose book is titled “How to Rap Battle Your Demons.” A young woman has lunch with her mother at a street side cafe, where a full dance sequence breaks out (in her imagination). There are many more, including many queer cast members and other marginalized cultures – and yes, one character spends the whole movie rating places on Yelp and desperately searching for a good burger.

The director can capture a sense of place with the best of ‘em. With its disparate communities and sprawling layout, L.A. can often be a cold, unfeeling city on film. But Summertime treats the city as its characters want to be treated: with genuine love, overlooking its flaws to focus on its best aspects. Its “pass the baton” structure takes the movie all over Los Angeles, dipping in and out of the parts of the city that aren’t regularly seen on screen, but the ones that make it feel like a real place instead of a slick city of dreams. (Like the kitchen of a hole-in-the-wall Korean American restaurant that’s stood for four generations.) The film occasionally dives into impressionism, with flashes of imagery complementing the words in a poem, grounding the poets’ lofty expressions with images of unseen alleys, vibrant murals, and people going about their daily lives. Summertime shines brightly in these small moments.

But while the lyrical poeticism of Blindspotting worked in small doses – that film’s awe-inspiring, jaw-dropping climax bowls you over with its raw power and emotion – it doesn’t work as well in Summertime, where that heightened style is sustained over what feels like 90% of the movie. When so much of the story is told that way, it begins to lose the rarity that once made it feel special. That’s not to say there aren’t moments of brilliance or inspiration. One of the female characters follows her ex-boyfriend and his “new babe” into a bookstore, lurking from afar and expressing her desire to be well-read, cool, funny, and sexy. It’s desperate but relatable, and when she later comes face to face with depression through a conversation with a friend, the result is a tearful, memorable moment. Another of its women has a powerful, emotional confrontation of her own near the end – the clear standout moment of the film, a real “you’ll know it when you see it” situation – that drove several sections of my audience to break into applause. The framing, the cinematography, the direction, the craft – all of that is on point here, but mostly, the movie is just so painfully earnest that it was sort of uncomfortable to watch. It’s not every day that a person bares their real, actual soul on screen, and this movie does it 25 times. For viewers who are feeling the same things as these characters, I imagine this movie will feel like a lightning strike directly to the heart. And I don’t consider myself an overly cynical person, but for me, the whole experience was…well, it can be a lot.

Estrada is clearly interested in exploring gentrification and poetry on film in unconventional ways, and since Summertime feels like the logical conclusion of those interests, I’m curious to see if he continues telling stories that focus on those ideas. It’s a soulful slice of life movie, but one that has so many slices that you end up with multiple pizzas by the time the end credits roll. And hey, everyone loves pizza, right? But when you have a belly full of it, you can look back and realize that there is such a thing as too much. One thing’s for sure: you won’t see another movie like it this year.

/Film Rating: 5 out of 10

Cool Posts From Around the Web:

About the Author