Hot Summer Nights (2018)
Written & Directed Elijah Bynum
Daniel is shipped off to stay with his aunt in Cape Cod during the summer of 1991. He’s not a summer bird or a townie and has trouble finding where he fits until he meets Hunter, a local who deals weed to all comers. Daniel also strikes up an intense flirtation with Mckaya, the neighborhood “hot chick.” He’s feeling a restlessness and takes up dealing with Hunter, pushing him to expand his operation and get involved with some unscrupulous people to have enough product. As would be expected, the two young men get in over their heads and are forced to face bleak, very real consequences.
Hot Summer Nights is a damn ambitious movie. From the opening scenes to the final reveal of the title screen it moves along at a Goodfellas like energetic pace fused with the currently popular retro neon 80s vibes. The problem is that the script believes it is much smarter than it ends up being. I was struck with how strong the style and technical aspects of the film were, but how utterly lacking in character development the entire story was. You have critical characters introduced and then forgotten for half the movie while other significant players pop up for the first time ⅔ into the picture only to linger on the periphery, feeling like we are supposed to know more but never getting that.
The first sign that Hot Summer Nights has problems is the disembodied narration from a 13-year-old boy who claims to have lived in Cape Cod and heard multiple rumors about this whole affair. This narration disappears about a third of the way into the picture only to be brought back up in the conclusion. This entire trope resonated with me as the core element of Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides, a decidedly not 1980s/90s movie. Hot Summer Nights seemed not to be sure what period it references. The soundtrack included a large number of songs from the 1970s and early 80s while the movie itself makes references to many pieces of late 1990s/2000s cinema (American Beauty, Donnie Darko, Boogie Nights). Other than a couple of references to Terminator 2 this picture doesn’t feel firmly grounded in anything other than a particular aesthetic du jour.
The actors present here would lead the audience to believe they are going to get a great character piece. We have Timothy Chalamet, Thomas Jane, Maika Monroe, and Maia Mitchell who are all very good to decent performers. Alex Roe rounds out the cast as Hunter, a new face to me and he was good with what the script gave him to work with. So that script is the Achilles heel of the entire production, so over-energized with dumping a ton of ideas and stylized scenes that it fails to make us genuinely care for and understood the relationships between its principal characters.
Thomas Jane is introduced early on as police Sgt. Frank Calhoun, a member of the local law who has strong notions about Hunter. The problem is that Calhoun is gone from the movie for about 45 minutes until we see him again. Also, the conflict between Calhoun and Hunter is never fully fleshed out until a scene near the end that weakly connects the police officer to Hunter’s drunken dad. Their story is much like the other relationships in the picture; it’s introduced and then just left to flounder while the movie moves onto the next thing it wants to do or establish.
Hot Summer Nights is the definition of a middle of the road movie. There’s so much personality exuding from the film that you can’t help but become involved. There’s not enough meat on the bones for you to walk feeling like you watched anything memorable. The script slides so easily into cliche or derivative scenes that are so obviously more than an homage and border on intellectual property theft. Not the worst movie A24 has produced so far, but nowhere close to a great one.