By Richard Ades
I’ve been trying to find something to compare Summertime to, but it’s not easy. I thought of calling it a street-smart, spoken-word version of La La Land, but that falls hopelessly short.
Besides being set in Los Angeles, the musicals have just two things in common: energy and heart.
Rather than beginning with a massive traffic jam, Summertime starts with the simple scene of a guitarist (Olympia Miccio) singing, strumming and skating her way along a sidewalk. Then she collides with a fellow Angelino and subsequently disappears, as our attention shifts to someone else who just happens to be nearby.
That sets the pattern for the film, which director Carlos Lopez Estrada (Blindspotting) has designed as a stream-of-consciousness portrait of a day in the life of L.A., and in particular its Venice and Hollywood neighborhoods. We wander through their funky streets meeting one young and talented individual after another, all of them poetically sharing their dreams, fears, struggles and desires.
Some characters pay brief visits, while others reappear periodically. An early standout is Tyris (Tyris Winter), an Afro-coifed gay man who wanders from one restaurant to another writing Yelp reviews and searching for an elusive cheeseburger. He’s feisty and mercurial, but as the day progresses, we realize that underneath he’s nursing a pain whose cause is only suggested.
Also dealing with personal challenges are Paolina (Paolina Acuna-Gonzalez), a Latina chafing under her tradition-minded mother’s rules, and Marquesha (Marquesha Baber), who’s receiving therapy for trauma related to body-image issues. Paolina faces her frustrations by imagining a rebellious dance featuring women in flowing red dresses, while Marquesha faces hers by tracking down and confronting her abusive ex.
Tying the film together is the comical tale of Rah and Anewbyss (Austin Antoine and Brice Banks), sidewalk rappers who struggle to find an audience until they catch the ear of a big-time producer. Then their careers take off at breakneck speed, especially after they ditch the rhymes about “Lambos” and start paying homage to their devoted moms.
The diverse cast includes Blacks and Whites, Latinas and Korean Americans, gays and straights. Each performer wrote his or her own story and poetic dialogue, resulting in a variety of moods and viewpoints. The miracle is that Estrada—with masterful help from cinematographer John Schmidt, editor John Melin and composer John S. Snyder—turns it all into a joyful and cohesive whole.
Summertime may have no plot, but it does leave us with a message of sorts: Live your life, face your demons, find your happiness—and respect other people’s right to do the same.
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Summertime (rated R) opens July 16 at select theaters, including Columbus’s Gateway Film Center and Cleveland’s Cedar Lee.