Sundance 2020 Review: A Mother and Son Hit a Grey Area in “Summer White”

There’s a mixture of mild pride and fear as Valeria (Sophie Alexander-Katz) watches over her new boyfriend Fernando (Fabián Corres) teach her 13-year-old son Rodrigo (Adrián Ross) how to drive from the backseat of an SUV in “Summer White.” Director Rodrigo Ruiz Patterson is wise to linger on her face while Rodrigo grapples with learning to use the brakes, making the discomfort of the moment palpable with literal jolts from breaking up the scene when Rodrigo has hardly mastered when to ease up on the pedal, but Valeria takes heart in seeing the loves of her life sharing the moment, if not necessarily bonding, and she’s happy for what must be the first time in ages.

This is something that Rodrigo can’t possibly understand fully at his age, but nor can Valeria understand that her happiness is coming at the expense of his, which is articulated brilliantly in Patterson’s debut feature where there is an unhealthy mother-son dynamic when the two are at their closest as much as when they drift apart. Unfortunately caught in the middle is Fernando, a largely mild-mannered accountant who doesn’t receive a proper introduction to Rodrigo until after the boy hears him having sex with his mom, interrupting their semi-usual evening routine of sleeping in the same bed when he can’t close his eyes. Rodrigo has picked up a habit of literally playing with fire, but it’s Valeria who can be seen tempting fate, thinking that after asking her son whether it’s okay to “invite over a friend,” the matter is settled when it is only the start of their problems, forcing Rodrigo to spend long stretches of time at a local junkyard where he fashions a house for himself out of a dilapidated RV while Fernando inches closer to moving in with Valeria.

Although it’s unlikely the trio will ever live together under one roof, Patterson is less interested in how things will fall apart than why, penning an insightful drama with Raúl Sebastian Quintanilla that explores the responsibility each of the characters have to each other while pursuing their own contentment. As capable as Fernando and Valeria are of wounding each other, Patterson is able to pinpoint how they can hurt themselves by attempting to tiptoeing around what they think the other is feeling without ever feeling heavy-handed and elicits such a strong, unaffected performances from his actors that the film’s one major stylistic flourish, experimenting with the intensity of sound at certain moments as a way inside of Rodrigo’s head, seems somewhat unnecessary. But “Summer White” is clearly the work of an important new filmmaker with a fantastic eye and a strong sense of pacing, knowing just how much of the story to give away at any particular moment and let the audience share in the experience of characters who can often surprise themselves with their own behavior. It may be a learning experience for all involved onscreen in Patterson’s debut, but the filmmaker is already accomplished.

“Summer White” will screen at the Sundance Film Festival on January 27th at 10 pm at the Redstone Cinema 2 in Park City, January 28th at 6 pm at the Broadway Centre Cinema in Salt Lake City, January 30th at 3 pm at Sundance Mountain Resort Screening Room at the Sundance Resort, January 31st at 6 pm at the Library Center Theatre in Park City and February 1st at 4 pm at the Holiday Village Cinema 4 in Park City.