The battle lines of territorial masculinity are drawn with compelling psychological complexity in Summer White, in which a 13-year-old boy impatient to become a man grows increasingly hostile to the presence of his single mother’s new partner in their lives. Mexican director Rodrigo Ruiz Patterson establishes a domestic situation of almost unhealthy mutual emotional dependency and then ruptures it with the arrival of an outsider whose kindness and generosity make him even more of a threat. This taut first narrative feature is virtually a romantic-triangle scenario, its heat, anger and hurt persuasively played by a fine trio of actors.
Shot by Maria Sarasvati Herrera with a gaze of probing intimacy and edited by Ernesto Martinez Buco with a rhythmic intensity that holds the viewer captive with its succession of short, quietly loaded scenes, the film opens with a succinct illustration of the bond between Rodrigo (Adrián Rossi) and his divorced mother Valeria (Sophie Alexander-Katz). Unable to sleep, the boy knocks on her bedroom door and she automatically lifts the covers to make space for him beside her.
Three’s a crowd.
They are casual about nudity around one another, sharing the bathroom in the morning, and Valeria seems used to making excuses for her son when Rodrigo declines to speak to his father during a Christmas phone call. Keeping to himself at school, Rodrigo swaggers around like a kid performing the role of a man, tucking a cigarette behind his pierced ear and frequently removing his shirt in the afternoon sun at the junkyard where he hangs out. Yet his mother addresses him as “puppy,” suggesting that she still sees him as a child.
This central relationship — and the challenge to it when a perceived intruder enters the picture — might be read in an Oedipal light if not for the judicious way in which it’s outlined by Patterson and his actors, subtly sexualizing the self-contained unit of two without pushing their interactions into creepiness.
The established order in the co-existence of mother and son is mirrored in the environment in which they live, with rows of boxy, identical houses seemingly in the middle of nowhere. But when Rodrigo wakes late one night and hears Valeria returning home with a date, the boy is immediately unsettled. Suddenly, there’s a frequent new presence in the house in Fernando (Fabián Corres), a television network accountant who strikes up an easy, mutually affectionate relationship with Valeria that leaves Rodrigo feeling his position has been usurped. He starts spending more time at the junkyard, holed up in an abandoned camper van.
In Rossi’s tightly wound performance, we sense Rodrigo’s humiliation the first time his mother disciplines him in front of Fernando, and his feelings of betrayal and resentment are suggested by interludes in which he watches his mother and her boyfriend while sneaking cigarettes on the roof. Those voyeuristic scenes feed understated notes of foreboding and suspense that simmer even when the rapport between Rodrigo and Fernando shows signs of warming up — as in a weekend trip to Acapulco, or when Fernando starts giving the boy driving lessons.
But when Fernando moves in, and he and Valeria repaint the house in the shade that gives the film its title, Rodrigo starts acting out, his protest taking the form of childish sabotage, petulant rebellion and, finally, impulsive rage.
Patterson and co-writer Raúl Sebastián Quintanilla foreshadow the ultimate violence via Rodrigo’s compulsive habit of flicking a Zippo lighter, which facilitates his incremental acts of arson. However, one of the most nail-biting sequences involves not fire but rather the boy’s out-of-control fury as he responds to Fernando’s growing impatience during a driving lesson by slamming his foot down on the accelerator, endangering both their lives.
The drama unfolds in a hermetic world at times not unlike that of a three-character play, and the actors expertly negotiate the shifting dynamic among them.
Rossi is an impressive screen natural, powerfully holding his own against his more experienced co-stars. Rodrigo simmers with anger through much of the action, but mostly keeps a grip on his feelings, exploding only rarely and never thinking through the consequences of his actions. Alexander-Katz conveys the painful conflict of a mother unaccustomed to putting her own needs first, but her increasing frustration as Valeria loses the trust of her son cuts both ways, causing her to treat him with the harshness his behavior merits. And Corres expertly gauges the equilibrium of a man determined to keep the peace, initially almost overcompensating in his efforts to befriend Rodrigo, and gradually becoming more retaliatory as his position is undermined.
This is a small-scale but punchy debut that pulls at the strings of primal connections in interesting ways. It builds to a final reconciliation that suggests remorse and forgiveness while remaining ambiguous as to whether there’s a way forward for the expanded family.
Production companies: Centro deCapacitación Cinematográfica, FOPROCINE, IMCINE
Cast: Adrián Rossi, Sophie Alexander-Katz, Fabián Corres
Director: Rodrigo Ruiz Patterson
Screenwriters: Rodrigo Ruiz Patterson, Raúl Sebastián Quintanilla
Producer: Alejandro Cortés Rubiales
Director of photography: Maria Sarasvati Herrera
Production designer: Federico Cantú
Costume designer: Claudia Sandoval
Editor: Ernesto Martinez Buco
Casting: Miriam Blanco
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema Dramatic Competition)
Sales: Visit Films