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Sundance 2020: Summertime, The Painter and the Thief

After making his directorial debut two years ago with the film “Blindspotting,” director Carlos López Estrada returns to Sundance in the “Next” category, a category usually saved for filmmakers who have not yet received the kind of attention Estrada already has. And yet it’s a fitting classification, as Estrada’s sophomore film has the experimental aspect for which the festival category is known. But it’s also fitting for how the film involves a roster of new talent who wield a more modern type of musical expression—beat poetry—to talk about their insecurities, their identities, and their potential to foster good things in the world. 

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Summertime” boasts 30 writer credits on IMDb—that includes all the poetry written and performed by 27 high school-age performers, a story that’s credited to Dave Harris, and additional story work to Estrada and others. All of these different creative forces make for a laid-back, sporadically grandiose flow that’s not entirely different from what Richard Linklater did with his debut film, “Slacker.” But Estrada offers a diverse, picturesque Los Angeles, populated with a slew of fresh faces across different backgrounds and ethnicities and genders. He puts them in the center of different vivacious set pieces that unfold in restaurants, on street corners, in book stores, at front doors. 

The arcs can be deceptively easygoing, and are focused on for a few minutes before the story moves to someone else, only to return later: Tyris (Tyris Winter) just wants to find a good cheeseburger in Los Angeles, a wandering soul with no sense of home; Bene’t (Bene’t Benton) is uncertain of where college is going to take her; Mila (Mila Cuda) uses her words to cut down a homophobe on a bus and proclaim her sexuality; Gordon (Gordon Ip) wants to break out of his job at a burger joint, and take all the good people with him. In a slightly less serious but heartfelt arc, fledgling rappers Anewbyss (Bryce Bank) and Rah (Austin Antoine) want to hit it big, but forget what they really should be rapping about. 

The young souls of “Summertime” snap into these monologues with the logic of a musical, and just like in such a theatrical production, some performances will hit you harder than others. One of the very best appears in the third act, in which Marquesha (Marquehsa Babers) unleashes all of her anger and sadness about a toxic relationship at the guy who clearly underestimated her. She delivers the monologue with such fervor that she too seems caught off guard when the tears start to burst in between her verses of emotional reawakening. Such a mix of poetry's massive emotions with Estrada's loving camera prove why it’s good that Estrada’s experiment exists. 

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It’s worth clarifying that “Summertime” is the kind of freewheeling, youth-oriented collection of art in which it’s vibe or die. If you can’t tune into the youthful abandon of its monologues, if you can’t feel a character developing from repeated choruses (“Home is … “, “I’m as gay as … “), if the movie’s full-force wokeness sounds too precious, then “Summertime” probably isn’t for you. Estrada’s film is also not going to pull back; when there’s a moment for a proclamation that some might find cheesy, it dashes toward it and blankets it with a winning sincerity. 

“Summertime” is a great display of Estrada’s intuition—of when to cap a scene with a joke (this movie has an excellent sense of humor), when to let narrative move it along, and when to just look up at the performers in meaningful low angle shots and let them go. Some of the film’s editing can be sloppy, but that feels to be a part of its own character, as the movie was filmed this past summer (numerous B-roll shots indicate tram stations with August 2019 timestamps). “Summertime” is alive in that way, while its different poets have their own realizations about love and life that often pop up in coming-of-age stories. 

But Estrada’s film is not just about accepting an expression that is as likely to make some people feel old as it is give them a jolt of hope for the future. It’s that this movie is very much about young people and their energy; they’ve been given a world where sometimes their drama involves being kicked out of a home just for being true to themselves, and sometimes it can just be about the hunt for a good cheeseburger. Estrada’s film sounds just like teen spirit, with big, beating hearts that all share center stage. 

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Opening night documentary “The Painter and the Thief” is the unbelievable saga of an unlikely friendship, and is comprised of life’s natural highs, shattering lows, and the gradual moments of growth in between. The way in which focal subjects Barbora (the painter) and Karl-Bertil (the thief) meet is revealed during the opening credits—he was caught on surveillance footage stealing two of her most prized paintings, and has been brought to court. Director Benjamin Ree’s film feels like it captures this drama by accident, as it starts with Barbora creating one painting, The Swan Song, in time lapse. It’s not the only instance in which this character study simply goes along with the lives of what compels it, showing people to be complicated, and their own individual actions toward one another as naturally extraordinary. 

When Karl-Bertil is in court to be sentenced for the theft, Barbora approaches him with an unusual request: she wants to paint him. He does not know where the paintings ended up, but her pain from the robbery has evolved into forgiveness, and an active curiosity to understand someone who could do such a thing. Barbora quickly sees what is behind Karl-Bertil’s tense, self-destructive veneer. She learns that he has done so much with his life—before he got involved with criminal activity, he was a traditional carpenter, and worked with kids with Aspergers—that it’s a tragedy he has not done more. Karl-Bertil’s reaction, then, when she shows him painting that she has made of him, is one of the film’s many quietly powerful moments. In his documentarian approach of watching the two from a distance, Ree lets the camera stay on Karl-Bertil’s face as he gazes at it, his jaw dropped. His bubbling reaction to seeing himself as someone’s subject only affirms the boundless potential of compassion. 

“The Painter and the Thief” follows both of their lives after this moment, highlighting their developing friendship while exemplifying how a person’s pain is not simply healed by another’s selflessness. Karl-Bertil goes through an extraordinary course of events, and Ree’s concise editing shows his general trajectory through a long period of time. Barbora has her own struggles with her passion in art—their difficulties are not the same, but the doc wants to draw the parallel that everyone has their own struggles, keeping them from what they want to do. In an act for a movie that is about how one person sees the other, there are warming passages where Barbora tells us bits about Karl-Bertil’s life story, and vice versa. 

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Ree is along for the ride, with no particular conclusion in sight during its second act, but it’s exciting how he captures everything on both sides. Sometimes the two stories don’t seem to thematically speak to each other—it can be like watching individual lives in their moments of therapy, self-reflection, heartache—but when their lives intersect periodically it’s very rewarding. Ree’s coverage is so complete that he can offer flashbacks to accompany conversations when the two share life developments that the other missed, allowing us to see what the other is talking about in a catch-up conversation. 

The two life stories in “The Painter and the Thief” are presented in a manner that feels like they’re always in progress, with Ree watching closely. And while Ree proves to know how to tell a good story, it’s Barbora who gives the film its last image. She presents a painting that perfectly sums up the power of “The Painter and the Thief,” a documentary that looks at everyday humanity as a work of art. 

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