Coasting on a bliss of mold-breaking and alive with the pulse of summer heat, Carlos López Estrada’s Summertime captures an infectious optimism in the neighborhoods of Los Angeles with the help of almost 30 spoken word poets. Hopping between vignettes threaded into one panoramic day, the film is a breezy and joyous look at the woes of the city, taking on subjects from gentrification to queerness, from romantic heartbreaks to the struggle to find a good burger. The concerns of contemporary L.A. cannot be contained by conventionality or a white status quo, and Summertime very much delights in its own identity of atypical, lyrical form giving voice to the underrepresented. There isn’t another film like it, certainly not so refreshingly self-assured, as this so far this summer.
López Estrada presents Summertime to be uniquely collaborative in spirit. Here is a film that feels like it belongs as much to the poet performers that populate it as much as it does to the director assembling them. Summertime zigs and zags with compounding movement as it takes us from one story to the next, from fledging musicians to commuting babysitters to couples in therapy. López Estrada swings a wide creative net and captures each of his poets with awe for their individualism and also like an attentive sparring partner; Summertime drops us in the middle of a boxing ring of creators landing blows of yes-and and one-upmanship. López Estrada’s accomplishment is that the film becomes as intimate as it is expansive.
In fact, it affirms the emerging filmmaker as one that is excitingly difficult to pin down. He first arrived with the dexterous drama Blindspotting, an underrated debut encompassing themes of friendship, the psychological weight of police violence, and community as identity. Then earlier this year, he brought his attention to character detail and layered storytelling to the Disney mold with Raya and the Last Dragon. Here we find López Estrada at his most ambitious and passionate yet, lending even bolder facets to an evolving directorial palette that’s among the most intriguing to watch.
And yet Summertime is also his least contained and successful on all of its aims, which is just fine as the film sees it. Summertime seems accepting of a little mess as it tries to cram in all of its notes, and it is especially okay with imprecision if it establishes itself as far outside of traditional movie rules as it can. But as the film tries to thread its omnibus-like narratives, it loses some of its impact; López Estrada captures a breadth in all of these stories, but moves too loosely to create the tonal and structural focus needed to make them register deeply as one cohesive whole. Ultimately, the film is satisfying as an experiment and as an entertainment, but never becomes a singular one.
Summertime is nevertheless worth its beachside journey for its funny and affectionate depiction of its characters. A hopeful burst of verse, music, outrage, and human connection, the film lives in the tension between the personal and the communal. Even if it’s just the struggles of a burger joint on a hectic night.