The avant-garde, L.A.-based ‘Summertime’ speaks universal truths

“Summertime” – “Los Angeles is a large city-like area surrounding The Beverly Hills Hotel.” – Fran Lebowitz

“Don’t forget you’re young on a hot summer night.” – “Hot in the City” (1982) by Billy Idol

In director Carlos Lopez Estrada’s (“Blindspotting” (2018), “Raya and the Last Dragon” (2021)) feature, he thinks way out of the box and – in some respects – bypasses traditional filmmaking.  “Summertime” is part poetry slam, part performance art, but all Los Angeles.  Check that.  This 84-minute on-screen presentation is all young people living in the City of Angels.  About two dozen 20-something poets (and a few who are a bit younger) speak their truth to Estrada’s camera, and not in a Hollywood café or bookstore.  La-La Land – the city itself – is their backdrop.

Like a Robert Altman movie, the diverging stories connect, but in ways that the audience and the on-screen players may not realize at first.  Now, connecting in L.A. is not all that easy.

So, in “Summertime”, when one poet walks past (or has a brief verbal exchange with) another, Estrada passes an invisible baton to the next. 

In this way, Estrada’s movie feels like “Roaring 20’s” (2021), a French production – that played at Tribeca 2021 – where 24 actors participate in an 85-minute narrative that director Elisabeth Vogler completed in one shot.  In that movie, the actors contend with their daily dilemmas or carry casual conversations with a friend (or two) as they stroll throughout Paris.  Vogler navigates cinematic handoffs, and she takes left or right turns – literally and figuratively – and new thespians emerge.

Tyris Winter

In Estrada’s film, the incoming poets speak their current troubles, ones that rent space in their heads, but they’re granted temporary release through poetry.  Estrada and the poets – like Madyson Park, Maia Mayor, Raul Herrera, and Jason Alvarez – did not have the extreme pressure of shooting their film in one take.  (For the record, could you imagine having the anchor position during a shoot’s last few minutes? The pressure!) Well, his unconventional film does present some convention through established editing methods.   

During a Dec. 18, 2020 interview with Stage Explorations, Estrada explains the inspiration for his avant-garde idea.  He dreamt up “Summertime” after watching 25 to 30 young poets at a 2018 spoken word performance.

“I remember just walking out of that event feeling so invigorated and so inspired by hearing all these very diverse young voices so eloquently, so poetically, and so beautifully express the things that meant the most to them.  I realized that the one thing they had in common is a lot of them spoke about their relationship to the city, whether through their neighborhoods, families, (or) personal experiences.  That was the one common thread,” Estrada says.

He approached the poets, and they “wrote and performed their individual pieces.” In addition to working with first-time movie actors, Estrada also conjures up the glue that holds the individual tales together.  The poets deliver and perform with gusto, but the transitions between the stories are somewhat mechanical or forced.  Still, Estrada keeps a deeper bond in mind for the long view.  It’s a successful one, so stay to the end.

Marquesha Babers

Now, not all of the pieces work equally, but there are no clunkers.  Tyris Winter’s, Mila Cuda’s, Gordon Ip’s, Marquesha Babers’, and Raul Herrera’s work are the brightest highlights, at least to this critic, as they speak about a bad restaurant experience, sexuality, working in the fast-food industry, unrequited love (or at least unrequited interest), and reaching for one’s dreams, respectively. 

There’s some flat-out beautiful stuff here, and in one tell-all, bring plenty of tissues.

In other cases, a player’s personal snag might feel trivial or cliché, but then again, in the moment, fighting for the freedom to wear red lipstick is a crucial need for a high school kid, and Paolina Acuna Gonzalez demands to be heard.

The messages spoken here are universal and not confined to Southern California.  Sure, our performers constantly bask under blue skies and are subjected to numbing outrages like a $14 piece of toast and – seemingly – endless blocks of concrete sidewalks and impersonal storefronts, but the film doesn’t take complete advantage of Los Angeles’ landmarks and scenic – although plastic – splendor.  Estrada favors everyday views rather than massive, sweeping postcards, for the most part, and this direction seems intentional.  Perhaps, if a 50 million-dollar budget fell out of the sky, we’d talking Oscar gold next March.  One could see Estrada pick up a few trophies where “La La Land” (2016) just missed.  Although, he captures a few big visual moments. The film opens with a shot of the ocean, and soon after, Olympia Miccio roller skates on (which I believe is) the Venice Fishing Pier and asks the city, “Can you feel me when I whisper just for you, just for you?”

What do you think the city’s answer will be?  Exactly.  Maybe this is a uniquely L.A. story after all.  Then again, these poets have each other, and for 84 minutes, we’re (mostly) in tune with them too.

⭐⭐ 1/2 out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Directed by: Carlos Lopez Estrada

Starring: Austin Antoine, Marquesha Babers, Bryce Banks, Bene’t Benton, Amaya Blankenship, Caedmon Branch, Mila Cuda, Gabriela de Luna, Joel Dupont, Walter Finnie Jr., Gordon Ip, Alyssa Kim, Doug Klinger, Maia Mayor, Anna Osuna, Sun Park, Sophia Thomas, Tyris Winter, Jason Alvarez, Paolina Acuna-Gonzalez, Madyson Park, Olympia Miccio, and Raul Herrera

Runtime: 84 minutes

Rated: R

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