‘Summertime’ Film Review: Spoken-Word Saga Offers a Vibrant Tour of the Real LA

Carlos López Estrada (“Blindspotting”) returns with a poetry slam that’s a feast for the senses

John Schmidt/Sundance

This review of “Summertime” was first published at its premiere at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

Like a kinetic ode, Carlos López Estrada’s sophomore feature “Summertime” reverberates with the vitality of 25 young co-authors, each of them a poet whose earnest verses piece together a stirring celebration of the city of Los Angeles, and even more so of its people.

Born of the director’s mind-blowing interaction with a workshop where performers from across the City of Angels recited fearlessly personal texts, the project was structured so that their voices could individually shine as well as coalesce in the context of a larger, unified, and gloriously moving narrative experiment — part urban musical and part sociological art.

As we jump from one gifted rhymester to the next, and from one part of town to another distinct landscape, fiercely empowered Tyris (Tyris Winter), an LGBTQ African American teenager fed up with the accepted absurdity of food trends and gentrification, is introduced as the most frequently recurring character and our unofficial guide through the maze of genuine experiences we’ve entered.

Strategically weaponizing Yelp reviews against presumed colonizers, he goes on a righteous quest to eat a burger and not a $15 slice of toast. Affordable fast food that tastes of familiarity emerges as a symbolic connection to a place that’s now attempting to whitewash all spaces and to erase people of color from the history to which they’ve always belonged.

López Estrada and company not only subvert lazy assumptions about their misunderstood metropolis and who lives and thrives there, but they also entirely shift the focus to the unheard and unseen for a wonderful reinvention. You’ll never see L.A. the same again and that’s for the better.

Formally, the traces of “Blindspotting” are perceptible in the use of cinematic hyper-reality, both for the heightened emotional effect it provides and to detach the film from the constraints of realistic time. Though López Estrada’s debut was co-written by stars Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal, the themes of reclamation and identity assertion continue as core ideas.

Although most of the poems, delivered on sidewalks and buses, dissect an ongoing or survived struggle, the film’s fantastical tone of humor and its inherent theatricality consistently balance the heartfelt notes with levity. Eclectic shots of a multitude of neighborhoods, captured by cinematographer John Schmidt, including a transition montage of murals, play their part in keeping the pace and visual language exciting.

Undiscovered rappers Anewbyss (Bryce Banks) and Rah (Austin Antoine) spitting lines about how the motivation for their hustle is their mothers, or a centerpiece dance number best described as the Latina “La La Land” to the words of Paolina Acuña-González — which reappropriates the color red — serve as stunning examples of the rousing tonal complexity achieved and of López Estrada’s boundless imagination to turn streets into stages.

Influenced by her therapist’s book “How to Rap Battle Your Demons,” another standout among a brilliant crowd is Marquesha (Marquesha Babers), an African American girl who’s suppressed her inner wounds who confronts an ex-romantic interest that body-shamed her. Every word a dagger for the offender and a breath of newly found confidence for her, Babers’ showstopper is the kind of unforgettable appearance that makes audiences stand up and clap mid-screening.

Seen early on as a street vendor, Raul (Raul Herrera) earns a special mention when he returns in the latter part of this atemporal trip in the role of a limousine driver who brings together the collection of characters we’ve acquainted along the way. Overlooking the L.A. skyline, he speaks of time spent with others as an expression of love, and the validity of anyone’s dreams.

“I give you my love, I give you my time. All I ask in return is that you fly,” Herrera melancholically expresses, which feels as if the “Here’s to the fools who dream” lyric from Damien Chazelle’s Oscar-winning fan-favorite had been deconstructed to fit in all of those who haven’t always been given the chance to aspire to greatness.

This potpourri of invigorating set pieces, all of them a revelation, traverses the geography of the sun-drenched concrete sprawl from Huntington Park in Southeast L.A. to gentrified Silver Lake and unpredictable Venice Beach. These authentic postcards of Los Angeles may seem distant for those on the wealthier side of the spectrum, but for many others, they reflect a reality where public transportation is vital and not a myth, where a Korean restaurant’s employees are not caricatures, where mariachis infuse the air with their music on any given day.

“Summertime,” and in turn the work of these young adults, democratizes poetry as a means of expression not reserved for the well-off and traditionally cultured. There’s a kind of grounded lyricism that never seeks to alienate with unapproachable philosophical musings, instead inviting others to partake in the liberating power that comes from processing what you are going through by putting it out into the world.

A striking new effort from a filmmaker who has impressively come into his own, López Estrada’s electrifying spoken-word fantasia distills the soul of a city often maligned for its shallowness into an ingenious revamping of its image as the diverse and exhilaratingly messy realm it is. Reveling in redefined hometown pride, this group of storytellers offers us passionate youth; we welcome it too, and the result is a rapturous whirlwind of truth.

Summertime opens in select movie theaters on July 9.