1 Hr., 47 Mins.
Hot Summer Nights
Much of that fun is indirectly — or directly, depending on your social circle — supplied by Hunter Strawberry (Alex Roe), a cigarette-chomping, nail-tough drug dealer who also happens to be so pretty that his left bicep could get its own photo spread in Tiger Beat. Hunter’s smart enough to know that selling pot and only pot is the only way to make the big bucks without dooming yourself to a Tony Montana-esque kismet. His influence on the beach town is so major, though, that he might as well be that no-good cocaine dealer or even a makeshift mayor.
Hunter comes across as rather ancillary in Hot Summer Nights (2018), however, and not just because the movie’s primary actor, Timothée Chalamet, is by far on more peoples’ minds than Roe will ever be. Chalamet, who plays an ungainly teenager named Daniel, is truly the film’s star. As the feature opens, he’s been sent to live with his aunt, who lives at the cape, by his mother, who needs a break from her son’s flighty behavior. (Daniel has a reason to be volatile, though: his father, who purportedly understood him better than anybody, has just died.)
Daniel is rangy and a social nebbish — great characteristics when you’re the hero in a coming-of-age story. But he’s stripped of his self-consciousness early on in Hot Summer Nights, mostly as a result of his getting to know, and then inadvertently professionally partnering with, Hunter.
Obligatory romances follow. Daniel starts seeing a surfer-blonde named McKayla (Maika Monroe), who also, to the former’s discontent, is Hunter’s younger sister. Hunter connects with a cherubic brunette named Amy (Maia Mitchell), who also, to Hunter’s unease, is the cape’s sergeant's (Thomas Jane) daughter.
Hot Summer Nights’ writer and director, Elijah Bynum, also making his filmmaking debut, makes it clear at the outset that this isn’t a druggier rendition of the classic bildungsroman, per se. True, drug-dealing is pivotal, as is rampant hedonism. But what Bynum seems most bent on clarifying is that, in our formative years, even when we’re working toward a fate that seems right initially, there might come a moment when we have to scrutinize the difference between the person we currently are and the person we’re attempting to turn into. Is this a natural progression, or are we out of our element, wrapped up in self-deception?
For Daniel, the latter case is more fitting. Late in the movie, overcome with false confidence, he decides that he’s going to start dealing cocaine under Hunter’s nose and, more worryingly, main supplier Dex’s (Emory Cohen). Soon, though, he realizes that he’s a cocksure dolt, not an in-the-making kingpin.
Hot Summer Nights takes place in 1991, and Bynum is preoccupied with period accuracy. At one point, a character cracks, in an effort to downsize a male opponent, that his main motive for making money this summer has to do with a desire to buy the new Traci Lords cassette. When characters descend on a drive-in theater, Bynum makes sure to hover around the marquee, which informs us that, in addition to Terminator 2: Judgment Day, there will also be showings of The Naked Gun 2 ½, The Rocketeer, and City Slickers. The soundtrack is a collective throwback, swathed with tracks by cool-kid favorites from The Modern Lovers, the Fixx, CAN, and more. (The retrophilia, though, feels indebted to the ‘90s-synonymous Quentin Tarantino.)
Yet Hot Summer Nights feels more analogous to 1980s B movies, specifically Walter Hill-helmed misadventures à la Streets of Fire (1984) and John Carpenter-fronted features akin to Christine (1983). The ‘80s, too, are pronouncedly famous for their coming-of-age stories: I saw parallels, most of the time ideologically, between this movie and the more daring facets of the subgenre, like the sybaritic Risky Business (1983) and the noirish Rumble Fish (1983).
This entails there be something of a disconnect. The film takes place in one decade, but seems to belong to another; the picture is set on the East Coast, which is eventually stunted by a hurricane, but was mostly shot in Atlanta. I wonder if the lacking of a concrete sense of place was supposed to contribute to ideas of an ageless, pulpy fantasia where youth and hedonism are dominating forces.
The abounding references and similarities synthesize to make what I guess is Bynum’s filmmaking “sensibility.” But the writer-director, who wrote the script in 2012 and recently turned 30, is finally a better taste-maker and stylist than he is a storyteller. Hot Summer Nights is visually and sensorially fetching — neon-drenched and exceedingly carnal. Here, the sucking of lollipops, the bursting of popcorn kernels, the fizzing of soda, and the explosion of fireworks are palpably sensual; here, skin gleams, lips are ripe, and taut bodies are accentuated. All simmers underneath a pall of confidently constructed period mimeographing.
But the story and the subplots which come with it are insubstantial. Hunter and Daniel’s rising to the top as collaborative dealers in the span of a month or two is improbable; the side romances are feebly constructed. (At least Chalamet and Monroe, always engaging performers, provide some cinematic harissa; Roe and Mitchell are sexy, but what else?) The conclusion to which the film comes is supposed to be tragic and romantic in a James-Dean-vehicle sort of way, but the rose color of it all feels like shabby S.E. Hinton-aping.
I wouldn’t completely discount Bynum, though. Even if Hot Summer Nights doesn’t work narratively, his amalgamating of styles is so assured that I imagine that, if his second effort finds him working off someone else’s script or a better-developed one of his own, we’ll be subversively introduced a sophomore step-forward, not a slump. C+
November 3, 2018
hese summer nights are hot, all right. It’s the sultriest Cape Cod’s been in years. The 90-to 100-plus-degree heat is stopping most baby boomers and up from doing much else besides lounging. But the kids, in contrast, are always looking for a thrill. The search for a good time usually begins around sunset — it’s then that Stones-like, debaucherous fun becomes as much a fixture in the area as ice-cream stands and knick-knack shops.