Writer/director Elijah Bynum’s debut feature, Hot Summer Nights, is about the growing pains of teenage summer love, and how that need and obsession for more at the taste of success can lead down a path of cracked and personal devastation.
Timothée Chalamet plays Daniel Middleton, a teenager struggling with the death of his father. He is sent to live with his aunt in Cape Cod over the summer, more his mother being rid of him than for his own good. After some quick thinking and help for a local drug dealer and bad boy—Hunter Strawberry (possibly the coolest name, and played by Alex Roe)—Daniel enters the world of drugs and falls for Hunter’s sister, McKayla (Maika Monroe). It’s a coming of age film that holds danger at every corner, from their dangerous drug supplier Dex (Emory Cohen), an impending storm, and keeping the personal with McKayla and the professional with Hunter as separated as possible.
Hot Summer Nights is a burst of style as soon as it’s running. The colors in each frame are brilliant and eye-popping, with blues and purples and reds that hue over the setting and the character’s faces. The first hit of marijuana Daniel encounters is treated almost like unlocking his true calling in life. He meets it with closed eyes, sucking back the smoke in the bong, before alertly jolting upright and being treated to a quick montage of cartoons and reefer madness propaganda from the olden days. He falls to the ground, a smile slowly creeping onto his face, and whispers, “Oh my god.”
Then we get the title card, complete with vintage VHS tracking warbles across the screen. It’s only a small example of the dashing and loose way the movie plays with the audience, the main method being the use of narration and talking heads. The film cuts around to various people, giving confessionals on things they heard about Hunter and McKayla, various ridiculous claims that all come to one agreement: “I heard he killed a guy.” The narration is from a neighborhood kid who witnesses everything from his house, giving the audience a thoughtful soliloquy from time to time. The editing and narrative become less snappy as the film continues, more traditional with the occasional flair once into the second act. This is for good reason, as the more dramatic and personal moments would prove less engaging if the style was getting in the way.
There is a certain 50’s aesthetic to the movie and its characters, perhaps from where it is located (a sleepy little town with a little darkness in the shadows), or perhaps in its love of diners, drive-in movies, milkshakes and Alex Roe’s Hunter evoking a James Dean quality in his performance. It’s a movie almost out of time, even in its music choice. For a movie set in the summer of 1991, it’s not really interested in the pop and rock of its time, but rather an eclectic choice of music from other decades. There’s some Bowie, some Can, some Derek and the Dominos (in unplugged piano form played before your very eyes), most deployed at pivotal moments in Daniel’s summer.
The movie captures the joys of a summer relationship in both Daniel and McKayla’s budding romance, and also with Hunter and his new girlfriend Amy (Maia Mitchell), whose father is the hard-assed cop in town, played by a particularly angry Thomas Jane (who is not in it as much as had been hoped). There are snapshots of this love, in a quick and rousing montage that is refreshing in its happiness, as fleeting as summer but just as potent.
Bynum likes to capture dueling scenes, deploying the technique at multiple points. Both sets of romantic pairings caught in the rain, caught in a loving embrace, and important moments for Hunter and Daniel, each playing out back and forth and cut in a way that both have the same emotional impact when combined together. It is assembled like they are connected even by scene and works really well to tell two stories at once.
Monroe plays McKayla as the girl all of the guys want to have but are too frightened to try to get. She at first looks at Daniel as though she is more curious at a thing she found than as a potential love interest, and as he grows in his confidence, this grows into something more. Monroe is always served best with dramatic moments, as she does incredibly well in a few moments.
Despite all the good, there are a few disappointing aspects. All that goes up must come down.
While Chalamet is quiet and unassuming in his role and does so wonderfully, he is not served with a character with much reason to his purpose. The drive to dive deeper into the world of drugs while Hunter legitimately has reason to want to ease his way out is never given much time to develop. It could be the death of his father, as the opening minutes layout, but he never mentions his father or the death for the remainder of the film. He isn’t doing it for McKayla, either, as she tells him Hunter is lost to the family due to his own drug dealing. And so it is a particular issue of wanting to go bigger without much in the way of a reason other than plot.
The movie opens on the promise of a storm, both metaphorical and literal. While visually exciting, having all of the characters out in a hurricane is a bit bizarre, defying some logic. William Fichtner appears very briefly, his scene having clear delineations from a famous scene in Boogie Nights. There are also hints of Goodfellas, in the use of “Layla” (even in lone piano form), the use of title cards with dates and times at various moments throughout the film, and Emory Cohen’s character feeling straight out of The Sopranos. But despite these derivative issues, the movie still comes out very much ahead.
Hot Summer Nights is well worth your time. It has droves of style, a surprising and addictive soundtrack and a personal touch in its actors’ portrayals. It’s bathed in gorgeous photography, and despite some bumps along the way, is a solid debut for Bynum.