With Summertime, Carlos López Estrada continues his streak of working with West Coast people who bring the gift of gab. On his first film, 2018’s Blindspotting, López Estrada teamed with stars and writers Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal, directing a satire on gentrification and racial tension in Oakland, Calif., with Diggs and Casal dropping rap bars here and there. For his latest, he got together with a whole crew of young poets (25 of them, to be exact) to write and star in yet another ensemble movie about living in California. Hell, if you’re a filmmaker, you’re gonna do one at some point.
If you’ve ever been to a place that does spoken-word poetry nights, you know these things are usually a mixed bag. Some performers will hit the mic and give you that real, captivating shit, while others will pretentiously pontificate — just to hear the sound of their own voice. That’s exactly what you get with this collection of vignettes, in which millennial Angelenos verbally spew their frustrations around the city.
At first, Summertime seems like an annoyingly woke free-for-all, with some orators sanctimoniously going off on people — not unlike what you might typically see on Twitter. Things start off quite cringey when we meet a gay African American guy with an Afro (Tyris Winter) — who mostly spends his time giving negative Yelp reviews to places that don’t sell cheeseburgers — reading the riot act to a waitress for making him pay $15 for avocado toast. We also get silly bits like a white girl (Maia Mayor) stalking her ex, talking to herself and wishing she could be his Ideal Mate, and a pair of struggling Black rappers (Austin Antoine and Bryce Banks) who become hip-hop superstars within the span of a day.
Thankfully, López Estrada makes this film a multicultural ride, making sure other minorities get equal time in delivering pieces that end up being the most memorable. Paolina Acuña-Gonzalez has an interesting inner monologue while her mom nags at her, imagining Latinas in red dresses dancing in the street and ganging up on a cat-caller. Gordon Ip plays a fed-up Asian fast-food worker who goes ham on a bunch of asshole customers. (Even if you’ve never worked in the service industry, that segment is satisfying as hell.) And full-figured sista Marquesha Babers provides the most applause-worthy piece when she gives a former crush the business for rejecting her so cruelly.
As uneven and amateurish as Summertime can get at times, this is a well-meaning exercise for López Estrada (and executive producer Kelly Marie Tran, whom López Estrada directed in the recent Disney movie Raya and the Last Dragon). He’s not only giving a callow but creative crew of artists a chance to shine — he’s also presenting a view of L.A. that’s both diverse and communal, where people of all races, cultures and sexual orientations interact and mingle without making a big fuss about it. (Dude has basically made the anti-Crash.)
To be honest, Summertime reminded me of my younger, self-righteous days on the spoken-word scene, going to poetry spots and spitting incendiary pieces like “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire by Licking My Balls?” and “The Night Bobby Brown Tried to Sodomize Me With a Burnt Crackpipe.” Needless to say, like spoken-word poetry in general, I was an acquired taste.