Hot Summer Nights written and directed by Elijah Bynum, is his directorial debut: his script appeared on the Black List in 2013, a survey of the most liked unproduced screenplays of that year. The film is a coming-of-age story that follows Daniel Middleton (Timothée Chalamet) as he is sent to Cape Cod, Massachusetts by his mother to help him cope with the recent death of his father. Once there he befriends the local rebel Hunter (Alex Roe) and starts selling weed in an entrepreneurial fashion. At the center of Hot Summer Nights is the love story between Daniel and Maika Monroe’s McKayla, the most desired woman in town, that men are rumoured to have killed themselves over. While I bought into the connection between Daniel and McKayla, there are elements of the film that fell into clichés and coupled with the rushed final act, the film fell short, leaving characters with unsatisfying conclusions.
The beginning of the film feels self-aware of how it plays into expectations – Daniel’s character literally says that it’s “such a cliche” he’s being sent away for the Summer. But as the film progresses no steps are taken to prevent it from falling further into predictable storylines. Again, the opening teased a more conscious approach, with a young teen narrating and bringing the audience to speed on who the characters are, what their reputation is in town and all the rumours and scandal that surround them. Hunter’s persona precedes him; the locals break the fourth wall to discuss the rumours surrounding him – the major takeaway “he fucking hates sprinkles” (a little girl said this one – scandalous!) and has “killed a man”. Unfortunately his character doesn’t develop much beyond this. He has anger problems, lashes out and (despite not trying) knows he cannot escape a life of crime. But this is justified by the fact his journey feels pre-destined, something the local Sheriff (played by Thomas Jane) comments on. Hunter’s life resembles more each day that of his drunk, good-for-nothing, wastrel of a father that the Sheriff used to know. The passing of Hunter’s mother, before the events of the film, has left the family shattered and we are told the strain the mother’s illness has had on the family. But again I wish more had been done with the family dynamic and that we could’ve seen Hunter at least attempt to become something else, because it would justify his internal struggle.
Set in 1991 the film has certain elements in it to build on that era; there’s a scene where they’re playing Street Fighter and they watch Terminator 2, which has only just come out, at the drive-in. There are fun-fairs, fireworks, drive-ins and arcades. An aesthetic that actually reminded me of Grease. And there are many nods to other films throughout. The setting is a big part of what makes the film, it comments on the divide between the residents and the ‘summer birds’ and the way Daniel doesn’t fit into either group – an outsider. (It’s his being an outsider that allows for him to become all too easily entangled in Hunter’s drug operation). They use the storm Hurricane Bob to foreshadow the climatic end, but again it did not carry any weight for me. I thought the storm would be more of a plot point considering how much it’s alluded to, but it didn’t have much purpose, except to set the mood, which at this point I found extremely scattered.
I bought into the romance between Daniel and McKayla, but I wish there had been more for the actors to work with and that their story had a better conclusion. The film had potential, but doesn’t commit to a clear path and suffers as a result. There are also moments that feel inconsistent, and character choices that feel so too. Daniel’s character becomes greedy and wants to dabble in selling harder drugs, even though it doesn’t feel in line with his character. But this does provide us with a cocaine drug deal starring William Fichtner as the menacing drug-lord Shep, in which Daniel is completely out of his depth. This scene puts Daniel’s ambitions back into perspective, while also showing how naive he is and how badly he’s misjudged the situation – an act that will have dire consequences later in the film.
Despite my issues with the film, I still enjoyed elements of it, such as the aesthetic and 90s feel. But unfortunately I found the plot baffling and the ending exasperating, as it leaves things unresolved.