In the new feature film “Summertime,” Mila Cuda stands tall in a moving bus to confront a homophobic man.
“I’m gay,” she says, “lesbian, libra, lascivious, licentious.”
Cuda, a rising senior at Wellesley College, is one of 27 Los Angeles-based poets who wrote and performed the screenplay for “Summertime,” hitting local theaters July 16. The spoken word musical was a collaboration between the young poets and director Carlos López Estrada, who directed “Raya and the Last Dragon” and “Blindspotting.”
“This morning, the sewer waters smelled like butterscotch,” Cuda wrote in her poem “LA Overture,” which opens the movie to 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” across concrete walls. The film interweaves the narratives of 25 young Angelenos as their lives intersect on a night out in a limo. Each scene crescendos into a poem and the characters speak about life, love, heartache, and fear.
“A poem on the page is beautiful. But there is something special about performing your own words,” Cuda said in a video interview this week.
Cuda began writing poetry at age 15 with the Los Angeles-based teen literacy program Get Lit: Words Ignite. Through open mics and workshops, her involvement in the organization grew from student to teacher. She eventually began coaching other teen poets and editing their works.
When she finished her first year at Wellesley, she decided to take the next year off to “grow, step back, reflect, and return to school with a newfound appetite.”
“I hadn’t really found my place on campus or found what I wanted to do,” she said.
Turns out, it perfectly aligned with a once-in-a-lifetime creative opportunity.
Two years ago, López Estrada caught a workshop featuring Get Lit poets.
“I left the event invigorated having experienced a young community of artists express so eloquently many of the notions that had been spinning, unanswered, in my mind,” López Estrada wrote in his director’s statement. “What does it mean to exist in this city today? The answers the poets presented were vibrant, loud, and sincere. With words, they painted a window into a city I had never seen before.”
At the event, Cuda performed “Hey, I’m Gay,” a poem that would eventually make it into the movie. Meanwhile, her experience as a Get Lit editor and teacher made her the perfect candidate for the position of poetry editor and supervisor. In the summer of 2019, she led a group of Get Lit young poets to workshop the script for “Summertime.”
“The collaboration was chaotic,” she remembered. “Everyone had a different vision for their scene and we spent a summer threading the stories together.”
But the team connected over their shared enthusiasm for poetry, building friendships that emanate through their performances. At the time of writing, many of the poets had just graduated from high school.
“We wanted to capture this very distinct moment,” Cuda said. “We were still together in the same place before going to explore other jobs, college, and adulthood.”
The poems in the film have been anthologized, along with the original works by more than 40 artists, in a book called “Summertime Odes to LA.” The pieces range from collages and paintings to songs stored in QR codes.
Cuda hopes the end product helps people appreciate poetry in a new way “and recognize it as a legitimate craft that belongs in the hands of young people.”
“Summertime” opens July 16 at Landmark’s Kendall Square Cinema and the Coolidge Corner Theater.