Exploring the remarkable similarities and revealing differences between these two recent additions to cinema’s treasure chest.
It’s rare that we get two films that touch on strikingly similar subject matter within months of each other; films that were, miraculously, made at the same time and are about the same things. It happened earlier this year, with James Marsh’s The Mercy and Simon Rumley’s Crowhurst both revolving around the tragic life of the same ill-fated sailor. Often, though, twin movies share release periods because of the significance of a particular moment in time to their story, as the example of The Mercy and Crowhurst indicates (both films were produced ahead of the 50th anniversary of the yacht race they’re centered on).
The rarer gems are those films that come from entirely distinct roots but bear similar fruits – films like The Florida Project and Summer 1993, which both revolve around young girls going through difficult, formative summers. Watched on their own, each film is excellent in its own right: Sean Baker’s Florida Project manages to feel extraordinarily escapist (thanks to its adoption of its protagonist’s sunny outlook) at the same time as it invokes a profound sense of injustice, while Carla Simón‘s more understated memoir movie Summer 1993 reveals the astonishing emotional intricacy of a child’s mind. Considering them together, however, enhances the way we watch both of these stunning films.
The Florida Project’s Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) is a hyperactive, cheeky six-year-old living in a budget motel on the outskirts of Disney World, where her mother (Bria Vinaite) struggles to pay rent. Summer 1993’s Frida (Laia Artigas), on the other hand, is motherless and much less boisterous: we meet her just after she’s been orphaned by AIDS at six years old, and just before she’s sent to live with her carefree uncle Esteve (David Verdaguer), his slightly stern wife Marga (Bruna Cusí), and her toddler cousin Anna (Paula Robles) in the Catalan countryside.
Frida is decidedly quiet and deeply — almost darkly — interior-minded; Moonee is loud and expressive. But whatever their differences, both The Florida Project and Summer 1993 mimic the point of view of their child protagonists through intimate low angles, forcing audiences to see the world from their diminutive, divergent perspectives. Their viewpoints are echoed in other ways, too: the natural and artificial colors of The Florida Project’s Kissimmee setting are bumped up to peak saturation, emulating the heightened senses experienced in childhood, while Summer 1993 takes the same approach (albeit more muted) with sound and color to impress upon us the lush, playground-like nature of Frida’s new rural surroundings.
The two girls have it rough, but because Baker and Simón have filtered their narratives through the eyes of their young characters, neither film feels melancholy. In part because of their similar endings — another remarkable coincidence between the two films — they don’t exactly feel happy, either, even if there are plenty of unexpected moments of joy in Summer 1993 and Florida Project. Instead, it’s the absence of sentiment that governs the two movies, as their directors adopt an observational approach that concerns itself only with articulating their characters’ outlooks. This allows us, as adult viewers, to freely process the rawness of what we see onscreen, like the snippets of eavesdropped conversation that wash up in Moonee’s periphery, or the panicked reactions that Frida is faced with after scraping her knee around other children (Summer 1993 is set during a period of ignorance surrounding AIDS).
It’s also precisely because we see the film’s events through Frida and Moonee’s eyes that not much of note happens in either film, subverting the kind of expectations you might have of dramas about troubled childhoods. For its part, Florida Project uses long, languid takes to pace itself in timing with the dog days that fill childhood summers and to evoke the impulsive, in-the-moment outlook of a child. But while Summer 1993 also eschews the traditional three-act structure, it is more impressionist in its editing, choosing to focus on particular emotion-filled moments rather than follow the clock.
This is perhaps because of its memoir origins: writer-director Simón based her screenplay on her own early life, when she, like Frida, was sent to live with an aunt and uncle after being orphaned. Even if some elements of the film aren’t based entirely on Simón’s own experiences (as she has indicated in interviews), it’s the rhythm of memory that predominantly guides the film’s focus. Time often passes in a blink of an eye: after we’re given a scene full of the awkward, fraught tension that comes with trying to form new familial bonds, for instance, we’re shown one in which Frida calls her aunt and uncle ‘mama’ and ‘papa’ with all the natural ease that suggests she’s been doing it forever. In accordance with the randomness of childhood memory, we don’t get to witness milestones in Frida’s journey (such as the first time she swaps ‘Marga’ for ‘mama’), perhaps because they are the type of events only an adult witness would remember. Instead, and because Summer 1993 is structured like a memoir, the scenes we do get to see are the little snatches of time that register as important to the young Frida: the day she counts eggs for her elderly neighbor or the time she crosses a pool in twelve seconds, for instance.
The Florida Project’s approach to storytelling reminds us how childhood feels, while Summer 1993 illuminates the psychology of how we remember it. As such, the two films are inversely linked in such a way that means you could well imagine that, if she were given the opportunity, six-year-old Frida might fashion a film as meandering as The Florida Project out of her first summer as an orphan, while a (hypothetically) grown-up Moonee might look back on her tough summer with the scattered, reflective style of Summer 1993. The intricate relationship between these films is something to behold, and it reminds us of the hidden delights — found in discovering two miraculously complementary films — that we rarely get to savor.