Summertime is a lyrical omnibus film written and performed by 25 poet-screenwriters who have never written or performed for movies before. During a summer-long poetry camp, each writer defined their cultural experience of Los Angeles in poetic verse and now they are ready for their film debuts. Captured by the sensitive direction of Carlos López Estrada — his poetry-for-the-screen acumen well-defined by Blindspotting (2018) and work on music videos — the lives of the participants arbitrarily intersect to create a broad anthology poem about a changing sense of place. We have seen Los Angeles at the movies forever, there is an implicit language created by our filmic understanding of the place, how it has been used, and what it means to make movies there. Summertime offers something moderately fresher: what Los Angeles means to a diverse new generation dealing with the shifting landscape of gentrification while they write a new history of inclusion.
Each poet gets about three minutes — roughly a music video each — to lay down their slam poetry. Some land with a thud, as the film disruptively bounces between its multitude of voices. Such is the nature of any omnibus, especially one with so many voices projected onto it. Others stick the landing. Sometimes the poetry really does slam. Sometimes it’s metered and more than an accumulation of mixed metaphors. Because it’s full of youthful voices, the film oscillates between well-intentioned naiveté and uncynical curiosity. The good thing Estrada and company have done is focused on the stronger characters. The ones that do work come together to form the wraparound story and share a celebratory ending together.
A woman roller skates around a shifting Venice Beach she no longer recognizes, serenading what has been lost. She crashes into a row of bikes and the camera shifts to a group upset with a restaurant under new ownership. The Yelp reviewer of the table just wants a cheeseburger, something to remind him of home. All the restaurant serves anymore are bread with high-priced accoutrements placed on top. A couple rapping street buskers try their damnedest to make an impact. They can’t even sort out what they want to sing about. They make it big when someone grabs their CD and hands it off to a record company. They make a fortune writing songs thanking their mothers. Another woman rides a bus where a bigoted man becomes frustrated by an older gay couple who insist on public displays of affection. The younger woman gives an inspired speech about her own queerness and how she defines herself. A couple’s relationship is on the outs. They visit a therapist who believes all couples ought to sort out their differences with rap battles. A woman has carried fear and pain her whole life, on account of being overweight, and today, she’s going to tell the man who rudely turned her down how his antagonism hurt her. A fast food worker did everything his culture expected of him, got perfect grades, and has reached the end of the line with flipping burgers, something’s gotta give.
All these stories wrap in and out, converging over the course of one day. Through poetic verse, they each tell us about their experience of Los Angeles. Yes, it’s a whole big mess, and plays as amateurish as movies with a poetic voice can come. Because these are amateurs, likely all working professionally for the first time. The good news is that they all get their first credits. They all get their first taste of an industry that would likely have always been on the outside. It’s easy to determine that this is a good thing to do. That Estrada’s heart is firmly in the right place, using his musical fixations to create a portrait of Generation Z as they approach adulthood. It reads as it is: like a film written by many very young writers who haven’t written for this format. That means it’s both scattered, literally in 25 different directions, but also that it has the voice of the outsider, not regularly captured at the movies. It’s nothing that hasn’t been done before and been done better, but by doing it in a new way, with so many new voices, Summertime captures a free-floating moment in time, specific to itself. It’s not Do the Right Thing (1989). It’s not even In the Heights. But clearly it has learned from these works how to create a free-flowing and intersected summer narrative of cultural specificity.