A backyard swimming pool tells part of the story in Colombian American writer-director Alessandra Lacorazza Samudio’s “In the Summers.” As it goes from refreshing site of joyful congregation to an ignored eyesore in mounting disrepair, the recreational amenity establishes itself as a potently grave motif for the passage of time in this unsentimental, and yet immensely affecting debut feature about a complicated parent-children relationship. Told in four elliptical segments, it spans roughly two decades.
Grammy-winning, Puerto Rican urban music hitmaker René Pérez Joglar (better known by his stage name Residente), part of the now defunct duo Calle 13, stars as Vicente. The nonchalant dad lives alone in Las Cruces, New Mexico, a sleepy desert town with a predominantly Latino population. With a cigarette over his ear and much eagerness, he picks up his daughters Violeta and Eva (played as children by Dreya Castillo and Luciana Elisa Quinonez), in from California for summer vacation, from the minuscule local airport.
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The first chapter is built from seemingly inconsequential moments that ultimately serve as the foundation for the father’s image in his daughters’ eyes, which will slowly decay as the years move forward in the narrative. He teaches them how to play pool and cook eggs, takes them stargazing and gives in to juvenile playfulness to connect with them. These understated scenes of familial intimacy introduce Lacorazza Samudio as a director with a deft hand for crafting character development from lived-in behavior rather than dialogue.
“I’m from here,” Vicente reassures his young girls when they ask about why he remains in Las Cruces. And though Puerto Rico is his actual homeland, he now resides in the house that his late mother left him — where the pool is. For Violeta and Eva, this arid locale and their father are almost inextricable from one another, as they only see him around the people and places that bring him a debilitating comfort and prevent him from evolving.
At first his interest in them supersedes his struggle with addiction and the baggage of a failed relationship, but that caring outlook won’t last. Taking on his first substantial film performance (after making a cameo in 2009’s “Old Dogs”), Pérez Joglar, who has directed plenty of his own music videos, nails each of Vicente’s transitions with grounded ardor, from a seemingly over-confident man trying to improve himself, to the erratic outbursts that beget dangerous episodes of outright neglect, and eventually the fragility of someone coming to terms with the irreparable consequences of their shortcomings.
Lacorazza Samudio doesn’t burden her script, inspired by her own history with her father and sister, with the details of the off-screen past that brought this fragmented clan to this present. Her interest is in subtly chaotic scenes that depict recognizable personality flaws, which feel fascinatingly in contrast with the visuals. Cinematographer Alejandro Mejía’s meticulously composed frames occasionally draw our eyes to a precisely positioned horizon line, almost as if the images tried to provide the stability missing from the characters’ homelife. To announce each new chapter and time jump, the director utilizes a shot of a changing altar with objects pertinent to a particular stage of life and accompanies these tableaux with lively Latin tunes, often achieving a disorienting result.
A few years in the future, teen Violeta (a fierce Kimaya Thais), in the process of asserting her queer identity, finds support in Carmen (Emma Ramos), a lesbian bar owner and Vicente’s lifelong friend. Rockier than ever, Violeta’s interactions with Vicente feel ridden with mutual, unrelentless antagonism. For her part, adolescent Eva (Allison Salinas) sees her dad’s attention shift away from her after he has another daughter with his girlfriend Yenny (Leslie Grace from “In the Heights”) — perhaps a new chance to get things right.
The marvelous pair of actors that portray the sisters as adults in the final part, Sasha Calle ( of “The Flash”) as Eva and Lio Mehiel (the lead in Sundance 2023’s “Mutt”) playing Violeta, bring it home with two thoughtfully pained performances. However, these turns wouldn’t have the same impact without the emotional groundwork, and believable baggage, laid out by the other sets of young artists that played them earlier in the picture.
Navigating through wounds patched up and reopened, the two siblings are confronted with a bittersweet perception of their father. Each time they return to see him, there’s tension, sometimes indifference, but always a sliver of sincere affection between them, just enough to keep them coming back in hopes that they can rekindle their bond fruitfully. What’s left unsaid in this acutely moving drama, but that we can infer through Calle’s mournful gaze and Mehiel’s pitying demeanor towards Pérez Joglar‘s convincingly pathetic Vicente, is that sometimes nostalgic love alone isn’t enough to salvage what’s been repeatedly broken.
Projects like “In the Summers” have the potential to usher in a wave of stories about Latinos in the United States that don’t hinge on an exceptional, overachieving character (compared to the multiple inspirational Latino biopics released in 2023), but that instead find their creative backbone in the everyday vicissitudes of ordinary folk. “In the Summers” is the type of personal, confidently executed first outing that should hopefully put the filmmaker on an auspicious track to produce other keenly humanist work.
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