THE STORY – An awkward teenager gets in over his head dealing drugs while falling for his business partner’s enigmatic sister during one scorching summer in Cape Cod, Mass.
THE CAST – Timothée Chalamet, Maika Monroe, Alex Roe, Maia Mitchell, William Fichtner & Thomas Jane
THE TEAM – Elijah Bynum (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 120 Minutes
By Jessica Peña
“Hot Summer Nights” plays like a cautionary, hazy tale of how coming-of-age boredom and agile overconfidence intersect each other into a dangerous fate. Elijah Bynum wastes no time into making his directorial debut a showy ensemble of darling actors sizzling in their talent for this summertime indie. With its smooth, warm aesthetic, it almost does convince you to not mind its antagonizing character dynamics and mishandled subplots. With a uniquely stylish first half, Bynum’s film drives itself into tonal depreciation and overstays its darker mishaps. It’s an amateur teenage thriller sure to impress some, even riding Timothee Chalamet’s stardom through. It can work when geared toward the right audience, i.e. us Chalamet stans, but even his talent can’t quite salvage the cliché at heart.
The film is told to us through the recollection of a young boy who claims to have seen the general timeline of events unfold that infamous summer in Massachusetts. It’s 1991, Cape Cod is heating up and expecting an enormous hurricane to hit in the coming weeks, a plot device that coincidentally tenses up the stakes. After the recent death of his father, Daniel Middleton isn’t exactly taking things well. We first see him meditating in his boxer briefs, finding little comfort in being alone. Daniel’s presumed to be an outcasted type, just stringing along the little confidence he’s got. He’s sent away to his aunt’s for the summer in Cape Cod, to which he responds ‘what a cliché.’ Maybe it’s this pinch of self-awareness that helps “Hot Summer Nights” leverage itself out of total ruins. In this isolated reality of Cape Cod, you’re either a ‘summer bird’ or a ‘townie,’ already bubbling down the community to a separation of classes; the upper class and vacationing folks, and the comfortable lower-mid class population. This surely makes fitting in a task for Daniel, but it doesn’t take long.
Working part-time at a local gas station convenience store, he meets fringe bad boy, Hunter Strawberry (Alex Roe) rolling in there and asking him on the spot to hide his dime bag of weed just before a cop comes in. Hunter is presented to be this quiet, James Dean-esque small-time drug dealer in a town where everyone gets it from him, but no one admits it. After an exchanging glance, Daniel pops open his register and plays it cool throughout. These two are about to hit it off and make mistakes, for sure. Daniel’s quickly infatuated over Hunter’s suave demeanor but thinks he can offer something better when it comes to his drug dealing. And so a relationship of business and trust grows between the two with Daniel offering inventive new business models and ideas of expansion, while Hunter assumes the role of the brawny, good-looking dealing partner. Daniel also happens to catch the attention of local darling, McKayla Strawberry (Maika Monroe), excessively dubbed around town as a ‘too good to be true’ kind of gal (and you guessed it, Hunter’s sister). The clientele is booming as Daniel and Hunter double and triple their earnings, all the while Daniel continues to pursue McKayla on the side against Hunter’s wishes… We can all guess how that’s going to play out.
Bynum doesn’t just direct the film, but he also wrote it from his own memory of two unlikely friends in his town who walked too close to the edge of popularity and drug dealing that they completely packed up and vanished, never to be heard from again. The narration from this young boy in the film attempts to give it a blistering edginess that peaks a little too early. The characters, although handled just fine by their actors, are unfortunately one-dimensional in scope. Emory Cohen gets a hefty turn of a role here as one part of a neighboring drug dealing crew looking to strike a fair compromise with the teenagers, so long as they cooperate and deliver. Maia Mitchell is woefully given the part of the timid cute girl who Hunter woos, which upsets her cop dad (Thomas Jane).
The film has a cloudy summer romanticism to it that only engages as long as its characters do. Daniel’s inflated ego and mediocre decisions don’t reminisce to that awkward teen sensibility we met at the beginning of the story, thus making it hard for us to even care about our lead character near the end. The screenplay is certainly not of the caliber as that which gave Chalamet critical acclaim in last year’s “Call Me By Your Name,” but he does what he can with it. “Hot Summer Nights” is overly ambitious in the same ways we like to reminisce and cling onto old ideas of who we wanted to be when we were going in over our heads. The story feels very confined to starvation and has Daniel cheating the business, but it never truly finds us sympathizing with any one of these characters, except maybe Hunter, who’s rational thinking is much appreciated and never utilized. Its dive into a Greek tragedy mob escapade comes around a little pretentious and unnecessarily out of reach for what it should have been flexed to. Elijah Bynum’s debut is a stylish, lightweight teenage thriller sure to satisfy the crowds, but not enough for the critical mass to dissect and engage.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – Although the script sets limits on his character, Chalamet carries the right amount of charisma and will no doubt make this a serviceable summer indie charmer for the younger crowd. An energetic first half gives us some slick, fun editing work that, in itself, is quite fun. Whip pans and nostalgic tunes help give it its own style in the vein of “Baby Driver.”
THE BAD – It becomes too ambitious for its own good and results in a very lukewarm turn of events. A rocky, dire shift of a third act derails it. Characters don’t have the believable depth that their expositions may imply. The story begins to boast of tired unoriginal crime tropes and character afflictions.