Sundance Review – Summertime Embraces Life through Spoken Word

Director: Carlos López Estrada
Starring & Written by: Tyris Winter, Marquesha Babers, Maia Mayor, Austin Antoine, Bryce Banks, Amaya Blankenship, Bene’t Benton, Raul Herrera, Mila Cuda, Gordon Ip, Jason Alvarez, Hanna Harris, Anna Osuna, Walter Finnie, Olympia Miccio, Paolina Acuña-González, Madyson Park, Xochitl Morales, Zach Perlmutter
John Schmidt

Director Carlos López Estrada is no stranger to the Sundance Film Festival. In 2018, his directorial debut, Blindspotting, premiered in the U.S. Drama Competition to rave reviews as it tackled race and class with raw emotion and style. Now back for his second feature film, Summertime, Estrada offers a voice to 25 young Los Angeles residents as they express themselves and their experiences with life, heartbreak and fear through poetry. It’s a bold, creative experience that radiates honesty and hope. 

Part of this is because it’s a project for young adults by young adults. After its 2020 Sundance premiere, a Q&A with the cast & crew revealed that Summertime was the work of young LA artists as they reflect on life at home (home being where they saw fit). And certainly, one can tell that this feature is more than meets the eye. At its core, it’s a film about experience rather than a defining beginning, middle and end story structure. It’s a free-verse collaborative piece inspired by a spoken word showcase of an incredibly diverse group of young adult performers as they navigate through life expressing their relationship to the city they love (or hate). 

Summertime — Still 3
Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Given the structure, it’s hard to ignore the ambition behind the project, especially when Summertime has a difficult time fermenting its seeds and planting its feet early on. But once the film crosses its initial hurdle, breaking the experimental wall is easy. Quite frankly, it was a simple task for me to find myself in at least one of these young storytellers as they navigate through a random day in LA and adjusting to personal issues. Because of that, this project is not only one full of passion, but affecting through and through.

Some of my favorite spoken-word sections with the film deal with concepts that are familiar to us all no matter what city we live in- dreams, sexuality and being comfortable with who we are. Audiences can expect catchy and vibrant poetic feats like “I’m as gay as…” performed by Mila Cuda. It’s a number dedicated to those who confidently embrace their sexuality and stand up to those who find problems when there are none. There’s also “I Wanna Be” – a segment where Sophie (Maia Mayor) pines after an ex and wonders what the new girl has that she doesn’t. It encapsulates the desire to be someone you’re not for the companionship of another. 

Summertime — Still 1
photo by John Schmidt | Courtesy of Sundance Institute

The best segment, however, is one so easy to love and empathize with – a true tear jerker. It’s Summertime‘s defining piece – the point at which Marquesha confronts her demons and the origin of her depression. Like many of the characters in Summertime, there’s a personal struggle she must overcome. Or, as her therapist would say, there are some demons she needs to rap battle. Audiences will come to know what exactly is holding her back from greatness, but her confrontation is an emotional roller coaster to say the least. As she navigates through her feelings, it’s heartbreaking, of course; but seeing her overcome the barrier to happiness is a triumphant one that is incredibly acted and victorious.

That’s what the entire film is, really – an amalgamation of pure, human emotion and the fight to live, love, dream, laugh, or do whatever we need to in our pursuit of happiness. And no matter our personal struggles, no matter where they’ve come from, we all have a right to live free of them. It may not have been the best day in LA for the 25 young spoken-word artists, but Summertime shows that the will to get through is stronger than any burden seeking to hold us back from accomplishing our dreams.

Rating: ★★★★

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