Childhood is so often seen as a period of unbridled promise and accumulation — of things, of knowledge, of friends and family — that the death of a parent can seem like the most confounding and terrible of erasures for a still-forming mind to process. For six-year-old Frida (Laia Artigas), the autobiographical protagonist around which Catalan filmmaker Carla Simón has crafted her touching debut feature “Summer 1993,” the loss of her mother puts her in a dizzying confluence of attention, love, discipline, freedom and pain when she’s taken from her city home to live in the Catalan countryside with her aunt and uncle.
But rather than adopt an excuse to turn this hardship material into easy sentiment, Simón treats this very personal matter with a focused, unhurried wisdom for the ways even a left-turn girlhood can still be a celebration of being young, alive and open.
Anchored by a pair of extraordinary child performances and titled like something you’d scrawl fondly under a faded photograph in a well-thumbed album, “Summer 1993” is a delicately brushed memory of confusion and joy, as if the movie itself can only smile awkwardly — and eventually, tearfully — as it looks back trying to make sense of it all.
“Summer 1993” opens with curly-haired, wide-eyed Frida’s life in Barcelona being briskly boxed up while she wanders and watches, amid the sound of fireworks outside, music inside from her guitar-playing uncle Esteve (David Verdaguer), and the respectful chatter of extended family — grandparents, aunts — who are there to wave goodbye as she’s driven away. In the morning, she’s living with new legal guardians Esteve and his wife Marga (Bruna Cusi) in a mountain-shaded house surrounded by greenery and nature sounds, with lively four-year-old cousin Anna (Paula Robles) an eager-to-please, ready-to-play shadow.
The adjustment isn’t easy, despite the obviously caring environment, and a bucolic setting built to spark frolicking in any freewheeling child. Frida pushes back against some of her new household’s rules, and in a funny, unbroken shot of pure kids’ play, dons boots, makeup, sunglasses, a pretend cigarette, and the air of a pampered diva, bossing Anna around in an obvious caricature of life under her late mom.
Though Simón doesn’t initially spell out the circumstances surrounding the death of Frida’s parents, there are early clues: a doctor’s examination after which Frida complains about constant testing, and a vigorous playdate with local girls her age ends awkwardly after Frida cuts herself, causing a mild panic in the other parents. It’s a stark reminder of the rampant fear surrounding AIDS transmission at that time, and Simón (who, like Frida, was born without the virus) is sensitive to the situation as one more psychological coloring in a broader yet nuanced portrait of adaptation and family, rather than a simple way to stamp Frida an outcast.
Whenever her conservative Catholic grandparents visit, for example, their doting is heartwarming, but the repeated attempts of grandma Maria (Isabel Rocatti) to instill religious teaching in Frida speaks volumes to how they viewed their deceased daughter’s parental shortcomings. (Frida’s takeaway is to leave the occasional offering to her mom at the base of a tiny Virgin Mary statue in the crook of a tree.)
“Summer 1993” is uncomplicated visually beyond its sunlit days and country nights, but not without a purpose. Simón’s default style is a camera on Frida, with narrative momentum often to be gleaned from the noises and voices around her. That can be a risky method if your pint-sized star isn’t a commanding performer, but Artigas is darned near magical, and with Robles, they become a magnetic duo, with the former’s mood shifts and generally observant wariness, and the latter’s forthright innocence, bouncing off each other beautifully.
Verdaguer and Cusi, meanwhile, hardly sidelined by Simón’s kid-centric approach, make the most of communicating Esteve’s and Marga’s committed struggle to fold Frida into their lives, without foregoing their own sense of how a well-functioning family works.
But it’s one of this movie’s consistent strengths that so much of its emotional plotting can be traced in Artigas’s face as Frida explores various experiments in trusting, for good or bad. There’s an early, shudder-worthy scene in which a disastrous gambit of Frida’s in testing her new guardians’ vulnerabilities doesn’t go well. But there’s never any doubt this girl is more interested in pulling through, and figuring things out, than making things worse for herself.
And ultimately, that bedrock of belief in the resilience of children — bottled at the source by the filmmaker herself, affectingly clear-eyed about her own autobiography — makes every late-in-the-film smile, giggle and exuberant display like a well-earned victory.