In the new feature film “Summertime”, Mila Cuda stands in a moving bus to confront a homophobic man.
“I’m gay,” she said, “lesbian, free, lustful, licentious.”
Cuda, a rising senior at Wellesley College, is one of 27 Los Angeles-based poets who wrote and performed the screenplay for “Summertime,” which hits local theaters on July 16. The spoken word musical was a collaboration between young poets and director Carlos López Estrada, who directed “Raya and the Last Dragon” and “Blindspotting”.
“This morning the sewage water smelled of butterscotch,” Cuda wrote in his poem “LA Overture,” which opens the film against a backdrop of blue Pacific waters.
As the movie unfolds, a skating guitarist moves through the streets. A tagger sprays the words “City of Jason” on concrete walls. The film interweaves the stories of 25 young Angelenos as their lives intersect on a limo party. Each scene turns into a poem, and the characters speak of life, love, grief and fear.
“A poem on the page is beautiful. But there is something special about playing your own words, ”Cuda said in a video interview this week.
Cuda started writing poetry at age 15 with the Los Angeles-based Teen Literacy Program Light up: words ignite. Thanks to open microphones and workshops, her involvement in the organization went from student to teacher. She eventually began to train other teenage poets and edit their works.
When she finished her freshman year at Wellesley, she decided to take the next year to “grow up, step back, reflect and go back to school with a new appetite.”
“I hadn’t really found my place on campus or found what I wanted to do,” she said.
It turns out to be a perfect match for a unique creative opportunity.
Two years ago, López Estrada attended a workshop featuring poets from Get Lit.
“I left the event invigorated after seeing a young community of artists express so eloquently many of the notions that were spinning, unanswered, in my mind,” López Estrada wrote in its director’s statement. “What does it mean to exist in this city today? The responses the poets presented were vibrant, strong and sincere. With words, they painted a window on a city I had never seen before.
At the event, Cuda performed “Hey, I’m Gay,” a poem that would eventually appear in the film. During this time, her experience as editor and teacher of Get Lit made her the ideal candidate for the position of poetry editor and supervisor. In the summer of 2019, she led a group of young poets Get Lit to prepare the screenplay for “Summertime”.
“The collaboration was chaotic,” she recalls. “Everyone had a different take on their scene and we spent a summer chaining the stories together.”
But the team connected on their shared enthusiasm for poetry, creating friendships that emanate from their performances. As of this writing, many poets have just graduated from high school.
“We wanted to capture this very distinct moment,” Cuda said. “We were always together in the same place before going to explore other jobs, college and adulthood.”
The poems from the film have been collected, along with the original works of over 40 artists, in a book titled “Summer odes to LA.” The pieces range from collages and paintings to songs stored in QR codes.
Cuda hopes the end product will help people appreciate poetry in a new way “and recognize it as a legitimate profession that belongs in the hands of young people.”
“Summertime” opens July 16 at Landmark’s Kendall Square Cinema and the Coolidge Corner Theater.