*[NOTE: This review was originally written in March 2021 for the 2021 SF Indie Film Fest. It’s being published now as part of a lifted embargo connected to a wider release.]
“Sometimes I feel like I don’t have a partner/
Sometimes I feel like My only friend/
Is the city I live in, The City of Angels/
Lonely as I am, together we cry”
– Anthony Kiedis, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Under the Bridge”
There’s a reason I used those lyrics as the quote for this review: I believe that song to be the definitive song of Los Angeles. Mind you, I’ve only visited and never lived there, but I’m at a loss to think of a song that better illustrates the way an LA native can feel simultaneously lonely and comforted by a city that sees millions arriving each day, but infamously separates them by way of cars, destinations, and socio-economic differences.
I don’t know if it was Carlos López Estrada’s specific intention to make the definitive LA film, but the Mexican-born director certainly makes a great go of it with Summertime. If anything, it will hopefully wash away the stain of Oscar-winning dreck like Crash.
Known for his creative consultation work with Disney, his live action CV boasts videos by Billie Eilish, tv spots for the WWE, and his feature debut with Oakland’s very own Blindspotting. He’s returned to live action films with Summertime, shot in the pre-COVID Los Angeles of 2019. Though driven by spoken-word verse, the “narrative” of the film owes more Rick Linklater’s Slacker and Waking Life. Imagine those two films with more Slam-style poetry and a lot more people of color and you have a good idea what you’re in for.
The closest the film has to a “main character” is young Tyris Winter (most all the performers go by their real names, even as they play characters) as a post-Millennial LA native at his whit’s end with the city’s expensive gentrification and the impending collegiate departure of his two best friends. Over the course of a single day (I think? There’s an evolution of two characters’ careers that seems expeditious, but I’m sure that’s the joke.), Tyris will go from clapping back at a snooty waitress to dipping into a Korean restaurant based on nothing more than its music to walking the streets of the city alone in a way Kiedis must have envisioned. Every time he stops, he has a poem to drop.
And he isn’t the only one: we meet a lesbian who refuses to hide her (or anyone else’s) sexuality at the request of a white str8boi on the bus; we meet a teenage Latina attempting to define her own sexuality out of the shadow of her conservative mother; we meet a couple in therapy who spit rhymes to finally open their hearts; we meet a plus-sized Black girl whose relationship to her body is as complex as her romantic status; and we meet an Asian burger-flipper who has reached the end of his rope. And that’s not even half of the cast – I haven’t even mentioned the two aspiring MCs who may be closer to fame than even they realize.
Summertime is a wonderful film that pulses with life every time its characters spit rhymes and step in sync (courtesy of choreographer Andrew Winghart). Its beating heart lies in the way it allows the oft-overlooked people of Los Angeles to let loose in a way that isn’t shown in the very media created in the same city. It’s a collection of lyrical confessions from people (mostly of color) who are caught up in the decisions made by the big movers and shakers of the world. The folks in this film don’t just have a lot to say, they have better things to say in a more interesting way.
Equally up to the task are director Estrada and cinematographer John Schmidt. When the film doesn’t directly follow Slacker’s transitional style of one character leading us to the next, it will usually do so with a montage. Not of the low-hanging fruit of the Hollywood sign or Beverly Hills palm trees, but rather a kaleidoscope of murals and graffiti on the sides of brick walls public spaces. It’s “beautifully dirty” in a sort of Tao te Ching way that a tourist wouldn’t really understand. In fact, when the film ends in a glorious fireworks display, the colors explode in such a way that it’s as if the film had been leading up to this all along.
If Summertime has a flaw, it’s in Jonathan Melin’s editing. As Martin Scorsese said in The Cutting Edge, “Sometimes editing is knowing when not to cut.” Estrada and Schmidt’s cinematography may be a bit conventional in that it’s the same sort of handheld shooting we’ve been overrun with for nearly two decades, but there are clearly times when they chose to linger on whomever was dropping a verse. Melin seems all too eager to cut into those visuals, as if he has nothing else to do. There are plenty of times over the course of the film that could – nay, should – have lingered rather than cutting away. The audio stays, so the words don’t lose their power, but if the visuals had followed suit, it would have been perfection.
But what is perfection if not the unattainable? Summertime may just come up short of perfection, but the fact that it got so close makes it an irresistible watch. It’s clear why an SF film fest chose this love letter to LA as its centerpiece film: we artistic, PoC natives of SF will easily find parallels with the gentrification frustration that informs our work. A film like this doesn’t exist to solve that frustration; it exists for those within it to celebrate one indisputable fact: we are still here.
Summertime is scheduled to stream until the 21st of February as part of SF Indie Fest 2021.
The film runs 95 minutes.
For information on how to view this and other films, please visit the festival’s official site here.