By Alex Ramon.

This modest small-town-set charmer, the debut fiction feature of its director, operates with a stealth subversiveness that proves all the more refreshing.”

The biggest splashes in Polish cinema over the turbulent past twelve months have been made by two films: Mariusz Wilczyński’s Berlinale success Kill It and Leave This Town (Zabij to i wyjedź z tego miasta), a deeply personal, long-in-the-making animation that presents the director’s home city of Łódź as a free associative phantasmagoria, and Jan Belcl’s Netflix-premiered All My Friends Are Dead (Wszyscy moi przyjaciele nie żyją), a calculated mash-up of various US teen movie tropes that belatedly twists itself into more interesting terrain in its memorably outré finale.

Whatever the strengths and shortcomings of both pictures, their value lies, in part, in broadening the scope and perception of Polish cinema, an output  generally underrepresented at major international festivals and narrowly defined either in terms of its illustrious past, or those new films that allude directly to it – namely, the two retro miniatures, Ida and Cold War, produced in the last few years by Paweł Pawlikowski.

Compared to Belcl and Wilczyński’s attention-grabbing visions, Tomasz Jurkiewicz’s new film Everyone Has a Summer (Każdy ma swoje lato) may look like convention itself. Yet this modest small-town-set charmer, the debut fiction feature of its director, operates with a stealth subversiveness that proves all the more refreshing.

Included in New Horizons’ Polish Days Goes to Cannes selection, and premiered at last year’s Polish Film Festival in Gdynia in the new Microbudget Film Competition, Everyone Has a Summer sustains a friendly, welcoming tone but doesn’t lack for bite and sharper edges on closer inspection. Though clearly evoking certain rural, small-scale Polish productions of the 2000s, such as Andrzej Jakimowski’s Zmruż Oczy (Squint Your Eyes) or Sztuczki (Tricks), Jurkiewicz’s film has its own beguiling everyday magic – one made all the more potent by its wry sensitivity to everyday longings, compromises, sadnesses and strife.

Working from a script co-written with Piotr Janusz, Jurkiewicz holds the characters nicely in balance throughout and allows them to confound our expectations.”

Mirek (Nicolas Przygoda, of Adrian Panek’s WWII horror Werewolf) is a teenager employed in the butcher’s department of a supermarket in the small town of Trzebinia, where he lives with his church organist mother, Stanisława (a fantastic Anita Poddębniak, the film’s beating heart), and his Alzheimer’s-afflicted Grandpa (Maciej Grzybowski). Mirek’s humdrum existence in a town he’s not alone in considering “shitty” is interrupted by the arrival of the spiky Agata (Sandra Drzymalska) who cycles in to start work at a church-run summer camp for girls where Stanisława is also employed. Agata reminds Mirek’s Grandfather of a lover from his youth, and Mirek himself is soon smitten by the girl, who remains ambivalent about his tentative advances. Meanwhile, Stanisława connects with Arek (Tadeusz Łomnicki, charm itself) who’s come to the town to mend the church organ.

“Remember, you’re responsible not only for the feelings that you have for others, but also for the feelings you rouse in others,” Stanisława lectures the group of girls in an early scene. That line, though piously delivered in context, resonates throughout the film, which invests its energies in the emotional interactions of its protagonists.

Like Daria Woszek’s wilder Marygoround (with whom it shares a set designer, the top-notch Alicja Kazimierczak), Everyone Has a Summer is short and brisk, wasting no time in establishing the characters and their dynamics. Crisply edited by Aleksandra Gowin, and jauntily scored by Szymon Wysocki, the rhythm is satisfying, and since the setting is Jurkiewicz’s own hometown, the film is clearly written and directed from observation. With huge power plant cooling towers dwarfing the dwellings, and unpleasant refinery smells remarked upon by more than one character, the location, lensed in a light and airy fashion by DP Weronika Bilska, never looks blandly picturesque, as the film returns to specific locations – the lake, the church, the level crossing – that reflect the circumscribed horizons of the protagonists’ world.

Working from a script co-written with Piotr Janusz, Jurkiewicz holds the characters nicely in balance throughout and allows them to confound our expectations, too. That’s especially true in the case of Stanisława, the prim Catholic matriarch whose subversive side is hinted at by her tendency to take to the church organ with the fervent passion of a Tori Amos in private moments. (“If she’d been born in the city, she’d be a contemporary music star!” remarks a priest, not unadmiringly, at one point.)

Poddębniak is marvellous in conveying Stanisława’s combined guilt and glee as she loosens up further in Arek’s company. The antithesis of the strenuously comic couplings in All My Friends are Dead, an unexpected love scene here (following seduction via spaghetti) feels real in its combination of insecurity, desire, and tenderness. The untimely interruption of the encounter upsets the viewer almost as much as it does the protagonists – one of whom responds by letting rip with some long-repressed resentments in the film’s most moving scene.

That moment speaks to one of Everyone Has a Summer’s darker themes – the impact of patriarchal power in the domestic sphere – and while there’s no breast-beating going on, the film certainly demonstrates a sympathetic concern with the social expectations placed on women, from the girls being warned against “evil and temptation” at the religious camp to the different example offered by the itinerant, independent-minded Agata, who Drzymalska plays with a winning mixture of defiance and reticence.

The film’s tendency towards understatement means that a late revelation about the past doesn’t carry the weight it should. But a small affirmative act of rebellion does, and the conclusion is graceful and delightful.  Jurkiewicz and Janusz clearly care about all of these characters. You will too, and this warm, wise film is a gem.

Alex Ramon is a lecturer and critic currently based in Łódź, Poland. He is the author of the book Liminal Spaces: The Double Art of Carol Shields and has published papers on Guy Maddin, Rawi Hage, Mordecai Richler, and Iris Murdoch. He has interviewed various directors, writers, and actors including Agnieszka Holland, Andrzej Chyra, Samuel Adamson, François Ozon, and Claire Bloom. His current projects include a collection of critical pieces and a book of interviews with actors. He writes for BFI, Sight & Sound and other outlets, and blogs at Boycotting Trends.

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