'Summertime': Film Review | Sundance 2020

Courtesy of Sundance
For those undaunted by poetry slams and even less rigorous forms of uninhibited self-expression.

'Blindspotting' director Carlos Lopez Estrada returns to Sundance with a showcase for young Los Angeles performers' spoken word material.

A series of loosely connected episodes in which Angelenos in their teens and twenties put their worries and hopes and exasperations into words, Carlos Lopez Estrada's Summertime may be a joy for those with a utilitarian view of art as therapy — who believe all creative self-expression is good, carrying its maker to a place of fuller humanity. It may be true that all can benefit from working emotions out in words. But it doesn't necessarily follow that those words deserve to be bellowed in a bus full of innocent bystanders, or unleashed on a captive movie audience. While this hodgepodge contains the occasional lovely or eloquent moment, as one would expect after Estrada's captivating 2018 Sundance debut Blindspotting, those are overshadowed by material that grates on all but the most forgiving ear, in a semi-narrative setting that clearly just cares about getting from one aria to the next.

The pic stumbles badly by putting its most solipsistic characters at the start, while viewers are still trying to decide what it is they're watching. A young woman rollerskates down a busy sidewalk, playing guitar and lost in a song she's singing, then knocks down a cluster of tourists and gets angry at them for daring to be in her path. A young man barks at a waitress because her restaurant no longer serves burgers, demands to be brought whatever she has that is most burger-like, then stands to denounce her at length when the result displeases him. (Yelp will be hearing about this!) A bus rider, sensing homophobia in a fellow passenger, stands to rhapsodize loudly on the topic of her sexuality, continuing long after the bigot has fled from her. This kind of tirade is why people dread public transportation, but in the world of Summertime, the entire bus applauds her.

At first, the film seems to intend a Slacker-like structure, in which its attention will pass from one stranger to the next. But many characters resurface repeatedly, and thin plotlines emerge. That burger-hungry young man (Tyris Winter), the most abrasive person onscreen, reappears more often than most, rendering judgments on things he knows nothing about; it's not until late in the film that we're given any reason to sympathize with him.

A pair of rappers named Anewbyss and Rah also appear frequently, in ways that illustrate the pic's odd attitude toward time. While Summertime often seems to be bouncing around neighborhoods during a single day, the rappers live out the arc of a career during the film: busking to finance a mixtape, then promoting it, then shooting a video for their first hit song, then waxing nostalgic about the days before fame. They're responsible for a long closing sequence in which some unrelated characters find themselves partying together in a limo, pointed toward a sentimental tableau overlooking the city at night.

Few moments refer to political or social issues as strongly as you might expect, though one intriguing fantasy scene finds a woman responding to catcalls by leading a troupe of red-gowned women into the street to dance his car away. The most pleasing sequence is one of the most humble, in which a middle-aged cook in a Korean restaurant chides her 20-year-old niece for being stiff, then decides to see what the kids are listening to these days. She likes it.

The credits' labeling of these monologues will in general strike many viewers as charitable, but some pieces fit the bill. Two high schoolers, about to leave for college and suddenly ambivalent, reflect on the many things that define "home" to them. One, whose untamed hair is cloud-shaped, recalls her mother's fingers "braiding me armor every morning." Estrada's camera accompanies these streams of consciousness nicely, though the choice of image is sometimes on-the-nose. In the end we're left with a much deeper sense of who these two are than we got back in that ugly "I want a burger!" scene.

Within the confines of this unstructured film, a woman played by Marquesha Babers gets a more satisfying arc than most — going from a sad kid in therapy, to one supporting a more troubled young woman, to a spurned would-be girlfriend delivering an enviable speech to the shallow guy who rejected her. The treatment she's describing may be too harsh to be easily believed, but her pain is real and her courage, briefly, show-stopping. Then it's back to the limo for more narrative meandering.

Production company: Little Ugly
Cast: Tyris Winter, Marquesha Babers, Maia Mayor, Austin Antoine, Bryce Banks, Amaya Blankenship, Bene't Benton Gordon Ip, Jason Alvarez
Director: Carlos Lopez Estrada
Screenwriter: Dave Harris
Producers: Kimberly Stuckwisch, Jeffrey Soros, Alisa Tager, Simon Horsman, Carlos LoĢpez Estrada, Diane Luby Lane
Director of photography: John Schmidt
Production designer: Tyler Jensen
Costume designer: Brianna Murphy
Editor: Jonathan Melin
Composer: John W. Snyder
Casting directors: Karmen Leech, Lani Thomison, John Williams
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (NEXT)
Sales: Mikey Schwartz-Wright, Jessica Kantor, UTA

90 minutes