Film Review: Hot Summer Nights

A flashy coming-of-age story elevated by a few terrific performances.
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This debut from writer-director Elijah Bynum has a busy music-video aesthetic: quick shots, a great rock and pop soundtrack, and cool staging—dynamic lighting and oblique close-ups on the actors’ faces. It’s a flashy film, but also rather derivative. In the end, Hot Summer Nights is a study in the power of talented actors to elevate material.

The year is 1991 and 18-year-old Daniel (Timothée Chalamet) is still reeling from the death of his father when his mother sends him to his aunt in Cape Cod for the summer. It takes Daniel some time to make friends, since he is neither a townie nor a “summer bird,” one of the wealthy out-of-towners who flock to the Cape for the season. The one friend he does make is the most notorious townie of all, a guy with the characterful moniker of “Hunter Strawberry” (Alex Roe, a Brit with a not half-bad Massachusetts accent). Hunter is the resident lothario, small-time drug dealer and a legend in his own time. (We hear the rumors that surround his name via a series of “I heard” testimonials from the locals—“I heard Hunter Strawberry killed a man”—in a sequence straight from Mean Girls.)

After Daniel runs into the hottest girl to make summer feel hotter since Phoebe Cates stepped out of a pool in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, he decides he must up his game and become cooler than he is. So Daniel convinces Hunter to take him on as Hunter’s weed-dealing partner, using his smarts and the confidence of his naiveté to increase business, though at the cost of becoming entangled with drug-supplying lowlifes. Trouble is—or, yet another trouble is—the hot girl Daniel is doing all of this to impress is none other than Hunter’s baby sister, McKayla (Maika Monroe, who, as Bynum says, nicely underplays her role and photographs extraordinarily well). Hunter forbids the pairing, but… Conflicts grow knottier until Hurricane Bob (which really did tear through Cape Cod in summer ’91) provides the backdrop for an unraveling.

At the beginning of the film, we read a super that tells us Hot Summer Nights is mostly based on a true story. In the press notes Bynum says he went to college with two guys like Daniel and Hunter: one a quiet boy-next-door type and the other “a swaggering alpha guy with a real darkness in him.” They began dealing drugs, got in over their heads, became suspicious of each other, and eventually fell apart in a “melodramatic fashion” he declines to explain. Hot Summer Nights also ends in melodramatic fashion, and is narrated as well by the character of an awed boy who was 13 or so the summer it all went down, a boy whose voiceover helps create that mythic air Bynum says he wanted to foster.

The press notes continue to elucidate. Summer 1991 was chosen as the setting because Bynum wanted the story to take place in the past so it could feel like a memory, as well as to revisit one of the last eras before the advent of cellphones and the Internet, when small towns were even more hermetic. These are all good reasons; however, any sense of small-town isolation is muffled in the film: Indeed, the Cape in the summer as portrayed here is bouncing with people. It might be a dead end for the locals, but it’s no desert cut off from outside influences. The arrival of Daniel himself is proof of the fact.

The story is more overtly concerned with the mythic status of Hunter, McKayla and Daniel. The flashy filmmaking seems like an attempt to make us feel we are inside the myth, in the heightened space of a story that is really more of a rumor. But once the myth has run its course and the screen goes black, with what are we left? Is the idea supposed to be that myths are necessary? Damaging? More real than the reality, or that they come to be so? Actually, it doesn’t appear that Hot Summer Nights is striving to make a point about small-town myths at all, so much as trying to replicate the experience of hearing one. That’s all well and good, and yet, lacking a firm takeaway or much of a conclusion drawn, the experience of Hot Summer Nights is one that doesn’t linger.

Ultimately, the movie feels derivative not because it uses familiar narrative techniques or nods to other movies, but because it doesn’t appear to use its touchstones to say very much. Bynum controls the tone and pacing well, so Hot Summer Nights makes for engaging viewing, but for all its cool shots, quick takes and rock ’n’ roll tunes, it is awfully safe.

That being said, Chalamet is just as good as everyone says, and there is also a terrific, brief turn by William Fichtner as an unbalanced coke dealer. In fact, there’s hardly a bad performance in the film. It’s thanks to moving faces like theirs, against which we’re often pressed so closely, that Hot Summer Nights enjoys moments that are a cut above.