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To get a bad pun out of the way, Hot Summer Nights left me cold. It was the first feature in a weird, perhaps unintentional, Massachusetts double feature in the 1,200-seat Paramount Theater on Monday at South By Southwest, followed by the truly brilliant Free Fire.
Director Elijah Bynum has made an incredibly frustrating first feature (in a good way, though), as so much of it works that you’ll want to love up until you finally realize it’s not the movie you thought it was. Maybe that’s the goal here: To use this movie as an actual stand-in for the high school crush you had and then dated for a bit the summer of your senior year, and you have some hot dates and truly fantastic makeouts, and your relationship was pretty compelling. Soon the afterglow fades, and you discover everything about them that you like was superficial and/or temperamental. So, of course, you break up, feeling pretty shitty after all of it comes to a close, and you sulk and go to college. Hey, it’s a pretty good metaphor for how you’ll feel walking out of Hot Summer Nights: frustrated, thinking of all the good times, bemoaning the bad ones. Only this time, the eye candy’s better.
So it’s 1991, Terminator 2 just hit the drive-in, school’s out, and it’s unusually hot on the Cape. Out-of-town yuppies have descended on the coast, and make life hell for the townies who have the gall to keep on living in their town when it’s cold out. Daniel (Timothee Chalamet), a weirdo loser, doesn’t fit into either group and doesn’t want to, and he finds himself perpetually alone. Well, that is until one day, when town rebel, pot dealer and living myth Hunter Strawberry (Alex Roe) walks into the convenience store he works at and asks the kid to hide an ounce of weed before a cop busts him. He does so, and the two of them become fast friends and, eventually, business partners. There’s only one thing that could tear these two friends apart: Hunter’s sister, McKayla (Maika Monroe), who Daniel is desperately in love with, and who Hunter doesn’t talk to anymore. Of course, mo’ money, mo’ problems, and as their business grows, so does Daniel’s ambition, and they begin down a tragic path that just so happens to coincide with Hurricane Bob…
Let’s get the good out of the way first: The cast, when used properly, are wonderful. Monroe is lovely as usual, though the material strips her of her individuality over the course of the film, and the same goes for Chalamet. However, this might be an honest-to-god superstar making performance from Roe, who oozes rough sexuality and violence whenever he’s onscreen, and he nails the accent for the most part. Strawberry is supposed to be this mythical local legend on the Cape, and he actually lives up to the billing, while also bringing a quiet and beautiful melancholy to a character who might seem to be pretty one-note on the page. He’s a beautiful dude, and he’s learned a lot from soulful badasses like Gosling and company, and I’m super excited to see what he does if he manages to break out of the YA adaptation ghetto. Other bit players are fun, and any movie that gives me a coked-out Bill Fichtner monologue probably deserves a watch. The cinematography is lovely when the story is able to jive with it, and the first 15 minutes are delightfully well-written and editing.
And there’s the rub: After the first 40 minutes, the film changes gears, the humor and the narration disappear and the tone changes. Hot Summer Nights doesn’t really know what to do with itself after that point. Should it be a loving coming of age story? A buddy film, perhaps? Should it be a crime film and emphasize the shitty things that the characters should do for cash? Should it be a nostalgia trip? Should it still keep on being light and funny? It tries to do most of those things, and fails at most of them. The nostalgia element doesn’t work for a lot of reasons- outside of drive-ins, there’s not too much in it to distinguish it from the present, and the soundtrack is comprised of pretty much only ’50s soul and rock, which works when you’re making movie set in the time period (Stand By Me, which also lifts some of the ethos behind the narration and doesn’t totally succeed with it) or making a movie with heavy nostalgia for that era when rooted within its characters (The Big Chill). The crime element eventually gets to such an intense point that it feels like another more serious movie collided with it, and throws the whole damn thing off the rails at the end.
It’s these tonal inconsistencies that wind up wrecking havoc on the character arcs at play, and cause its excellent cast to oscillate wildly from one particular version of their role to another, and undo a lot of the goodwill early on.
I have no doubt in my mind that Bynum will go on to make some really good movies in his hopefully lengthy career, and for a first feature this is an absolutely massive effort. The slickness and sheen of the whole thing make it feel very much like a true Hollywood film indeed, and I wouldn’t be shocked if one of the major franchise hawks swoops into have him reboot The Matrix series or something (like that’d ever hap– oh no). And again, those first 15 minutes are some truly excellent filmmaking, worthy of any number of accolades and all of the confusion people are going to feel when this turns into a real fucking bummer.
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