In a poetry reading, pursuing a distraction can be a kindness. Looking away, listening for room tone rather than to the speaker’s words — these are ways of granting the poet reprieve from judgment. But when watching a film, the camera controls where you gaze, and sound design limits the audible disturbances. Ultimately, this is the undoing of “Summertime,” a movie that uses spoken word poetry as its guiding light. The direction limits, rather than expands the words of its performer-poets.
The director Carlos López Estrada works with contemporary poets to present a semi-fictional portrait of Los Angeles. The story draws inspiration from the Richard Linklater movie, “Slacker” — here, strangers cross paths momentarily and the camera transitions to new characters with each coincidental meeting. There are some recurring figures, like Tyris (Tyris Winter), a young man who posts Yelp reviews of the city’s restaurants, but most of the stories come and go quickly. The camera only stops long enough for its new subject to enter a recitation.
The most successful sequences are the ones that find new ways of illustrating the meaning of a poem besides lingering on the face of the performer uttering purposefully syncopated and painstakingly intonated lines. A dance sequence in a parking lot demonstrates a fantasy of freedom with greater vitality than even the most animated speaker is able to muster. Some of the film’s most moving lines are spoken over a radio at a Korean restaurant. The new rhythm provided by a different language breaks up the film’s more predictable patterns of verses, and the broadcast from afar grants both the audience and characters room for imagination — a quality that unfortunately feels in short supply.
Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes. In theaters.
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