Like Blindspotting before it, Summertime is glib in its politics and hollow in its messaging.
In one of the more telling recent Hollywood career leaps, L.A.-based music video director Carlos López Estrada raised eyebrows when it was announced that he would follow up his feature directorial debut, Blindspotting, with a Disney partnership that has thus far resulted in Raya and the Last Dragon (a co-directing gig), an announced (and almost immediately shelved) live-action Robin Hood remake, and some some sort of original IP, yet to be unveiled. It looks like a pretty serious career pivot at surface level, but Blindspotting, Sundance sensation that it was, totally works as an audition for The House of Mouse, offering a glib, sanitized interpretation of gravely serious social issues befitting a cartoon. Sort of an anti-progress movie, Blindspotting responded to matters of police violence, racism, gentrification, profiling, performance, et al. with glib gimmickry and reckless respectability politics, with the resulting effect being a film that assuages while appearing to scold.
Its production beginning after Blindspotting but prior to Raya, Estrada’s latest film to see release, Summertime, lands somewhere between those two movies in terms of tone and scope, covering similar thematic territory (and using a similar fourth-wall-breaking device) to the former, while pitching the content slightly closer to a youth demo. Leaving behind Blindspotting writers Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal, Summertime finds Estrada shepherding the vision of 25 different teen poets from Los Angeles, whose individual spoken-word pieces have been threaded together into a narrative by the director and Venezuelan filmmaker Vero Kompalic (both receive “Story by” credits). Through the use of magical realism and a structure borrowed from Richard Linklater’s Slacker, Estrada and Kompalic are able to more or less convincingly pull these disparate stories into a smooth continuity that covers a day in L.A. anchored by the 25 poems. Each poet performs their own piece on screen, with some directly informing the plot and others playing out more like brief asides. This is likely about all the information anyone needs to decide whether or not they care to engage with Summertime, and there’s no real use in critiquing the earnest, intimate expressions of these young adults, so considerations of plot detail aren’t really worth getting into. What is worth noting is the way in which Estrada and Komaplic go about adapting the material, flattening and equating the varied traumas expressed in the poetry (many tied specifically to race and sexuality), often drawing inappropriate parallels in the process (a woman who experienced fatphobic, verbal abuse and a woman who stalked her ex-boyfriend bonding over their bad experiences with men, for instance). This stuff is born out of corporate screenwriting sensibility more than anything else, and reaches its apex with the film’s climax — a liberal utopian fever dream that finds the performers all getting to cruise around the city in a party limo. But this ultimate triumph rings hollow and a little condescending in light of the film’s heavier moments, and speaks to the emptiness of Estrada’s political project (like Blindspotting, this film isn’t not pro-cop) and what Summertime is attempting to accomplish in full.