Poetic Social Justice – Summertime

Director Carlos López Estrada has three feature films under his belt so far, with a fourth coming later this year. He made his debut with Blindspotting, which was my favorite film of 2018. This year, he followed up with Raya and the Last Dragon, and later this year he’ll put out his second Disney animated feature, Encanto. The common thread shared by all these films (having seen the first two and it seems apparent in the third from the trailer) is a focus on finding a rhythm, a beat, for a community, particularly those that are underserved in popular culture. His latest, Summertime, fits this same pattern, with overall positive results.

Produced in conjunction with his lead actress from Raya, Kelly Marie Tran (I’m so glad she’s getting better work after being completely wasted in the last two Star Wars movies), Summertime is a fairly unique experiment in filmmaking, especially in that it’s getting national exposure and attention. Rather than having a linear plot with established characters and actors, the bulk of this film is written and performed by poets from across Los Angeles, with Dave Harris’ screenplay being more of a rough framing device for scenes and vignettes featuring the poetry than anything else. It’s a bold creative endeavor, and one that admittedly doesn’t always work. But there are enough moments where the content resonates to go along with the gamble on the format that it definitely earns a recommendation. If nothing else, if you want to see what results an experimental film can yield, this is good place to start.

I’ve lived in L.A. for seven years now, long enough to recognize neighborhoods and landmarks that aren’t automatically thought of as tourist destinations, and it’s something of a local hobby for people working in the entertainment industry – especially transplants – to have their own “L.A. Movie” head canon. Sometimes it’s about trying to define the experience of living in this city by way of cinematic fantasy, and sometimes we just like to make fun of how confused the geography can be when outsiders would never notice (I made note of this in my review of Wrath of Man earlier this year, for example). So, to have the film begin with a young woman reciting an ode to the Venice Pier, which is literally two miles down the road from my house, is a very inviting motif.

The problem is that once we get that lyrical introduction, the film seemingly tries its hardest to annoy the audience into walking out, giving us a parade of scenarios and characters that represent the worst that the city has to offer. It’s a jarring juxtaposition to see expert staging and poetic delivery in service of the type of people that the rest of the country thinks of when they think of how bad this town is.

Our lovely pier poet starts rollerskating down the sidewalk while strumming a guitar, oblivious to all surroundings like the worst kind of hipster, because the only thing that matters is what she’s doing. She strolls and rolls through pedestrian and automotive traffic like it’s the rest of the world’s obligation to get out of her way when she’s jamming. Obviousl, she collides with a different type of hipster wearing a stupid hat who’s trying to take a group selfie with his friends outside of some trendy restaurant because “pics or it didn’t happen,” even though literally no one cares that you ate a fucking meal out. Hashtag “Get a fucking life.”

Then we go inside the restaurant where one of the “leads” of the ensemble cast, Tyris Winter, throws a complete shit fit and harasses a waitress because he can’t believe the place no longer serves cheeseburgers, and what they do serve (essentially salmon toast) is too expensive when he’s flat broke. Never mind that he shouldn’t be eating out if he can’t afford it, and that you have to be living under several layers of the Earth’s crust if you think anything is cheap in this city, he’s an influencer! So whatever he thinks is better than a poor girl just trying to do her job and who does not have time for self-important bullshit. He pulls this stunt while his friends film it, hoping to go viral, and all so he can threaten the restaurant for free service in exchange for him not trashing the place on Yelp. Eventually, we’re supposed to root for this guy, by the way. We then see one of his friends get on a bus, where a random guy objects to some elderly lesbians having a public display of affection, which is asshole behavior to be sure. But what’s even more assholic is that this contrivance is just to set up another poet with the opportunity to “cancel” him with an aggressive “I’m Gay” poem. This is what we call two wrongs attempting to make a right, and it’s painful.

Thankfully, once the first act is over, the movie hits its stride and actually gives us some entertaining slices of L.A. life. Tyris, initially quite irritating, becomes something of an identifiable character when it comes to dealing with his lack of a home life and his odyssey across the city for a burger. It’s not because there aren’t any places that sell them, particularly on Venice Boulevard working your way east towards downtown, just that he can’t find that feeling of home that comes when he sinks his teeth into a really good one. Incidentally, for me that’s HiHo Burger in Santa Monica. Pricey, but delicious when I’m in the neighborhood. And outside of burgers, there’s Kings Deli in Burbank. I tried it on an offhanded recommendation when I got my first job out here, and it was the most delicious roast beef sandwich I’d ever had, partly because of the flavors and portion size, but also because after 10 months living here with no prospects, I finally felt like I’d accomplished something in the industry and in this city, and that first bite of that sandwich was the perfect combination of flavor and comfort, to the point that I stop there whenever I’m in that part of town (county, really, Burbank is its own city), whether I’m working or just passing through on some other errand. Tyris and I live vastly different lives, but when the film makes it clear why he’s on this quest, it becomes eminently relatable, and the more aggravating aspects of his character are quickly forgiven.

That ends up happening for a lot of the disparate characters we pick up along the way. A horribly put-upon fast food worker (Gordon Ip, who had a small role in Raya) finally snaps and gives his self-absorbed customers a bit of pushback that would make Dante and Randal cheer. Maia Mayor plays a woman lost in her own insecurities as she stalks her ex before meeting Marquesha Babers, allowing both ladies to get catharsis from their own jilting. Relationship therapy turns into a jam session. A waitress fantasizes about a flash mob of feminist vengeance against a cat caller. There are just so many ways that this film, in its latter two thirds, turns the L.A. stereotypes into inspired statements of purpose.

But the best part of this oddly urbane tapestry is the one story that sort of exists outside of it all. For all intents and purposes, the events of this film happen over the course of a single day in 2019, presumably the 4th of July (the film only fonts “July 2019,” but given the nighttime fireworks all over the city in one poignant scene, it’s the logical conclusion, even though fireworks are a regular occurrence in neighborhoods across L.A. from Cinco de Mayo through Independence Day). But seemingly separate from all of this is the accelerated rise of two young rappers named Anewbyss and Rah (a play on the Egyptian Gods Anubis and Ra), played by Bryce Banks and Austin Antoine, respectively.

They begin the film as sidewalk rappers trying to get a little bit of attention and cash through busking, even though they can’t even give their demos away. But they persist because Los Angeles is the type of city where anything can happen, and your lucky break can come at any time. Serving almost as interstitial content as the film jumps across the city, Anewbyss and Rah go from spitting into a cheap microphone to an instant and unlikely discovery from a producer, to a record contract, to selling out theatres, to lamenting the demands of fame, all in the span of this one day, all because they rapped about genuine topics like how much they love their mothers (the actors’ moms making a cameo while the duo films a music video midday). Based on the world this film has constructed, this conceit shouldn’t work, because the fantasy ultimately fucks with the established reality, throwing the entire narrative into flux. But their scenes are so consistently entertaining, and the actors’ performances (both of dialogue and of their music) are so strong that rather than being a misplaced element that pulls you out of the picture, they provide something of a palate cleanse whenever the rest of the ensemble’s adventures become too thematically heavy or too convoluted.

In the end, this is a love letter to the City of Angels, and while the first third can be something of an endurance test, it is representative of all the walks of life in this town, for better and worse. Even that very touch-and-go opening act is in itself a microcosm of what it’s like to hustle in L.A. It can be annoying, frustrating, even soul-crushing at times. But once you break through and find your path to the good stuff, the world is yours, and it’s a beautiful poem.

Grade: B

Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Have you ever done a poetry slam? What’s your “home” burger joint? Let me know!

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