Sunday 24 January 2021

Movie Review: Hot Summer Nights (2017)

A coming-of-age drama and romance, Hot Summer Nights aims for a cool early 1990s vibe but despite stylish ambitions never finds the necessary emotional traction.

After the death of his father, introverted teenager Daniel Middleton (Timothée Chalamet) relocates to Cape Cod to live with his aunt for the summer of 1991. The community consists of year-round "townies" and vacationing "outsiders", but Daniel eventually befriends marijuana peddler Hunter Strawberry (Alex Roe), a brooding local legend with a reputation for violence. They become partners selling weed, working for supplier Dex (Emory Cohen).

Daniel is also infatuated with Hunter's sister McKayla (Maika Monroe), the most desired girl in the community. Hunter is not on speaking terms with his sister but nevertheless warns Daniel to stay away from her, a warning Daniel promptly ignores while Hunter also finds a girlfriend in Amy (Maia Mitchell). With Daniel and Hunter making more money than they could imagine, Daniel sets his sights even higher, but trouble will descend from all sides.

Obsessed with a drugs-and-parties culture, Hot Summer Nights forgets to care enough about key characters. Writer and director Elijah Bynum gets busy with interesting camera angles and a single-minded focus on teenagers acting with aloof detachment towards each other, leaving a parched emptiness instead of soul at the narrative core. Although the snarky narration adds an occasional spark, the narrator is an irrelevant and unseen kid, adding to the sense of misdirected emphasis.

With context and background barely sketched in, Daniel's transformation from a meek and withdrawn misfit to a risk-taking drug pusher is unimpressive. Hunter and McKayla start and end their arc at the same place, he's the rebel without a cause and she's the bombshell looking for a ticket out of town. McKayla hates her brother for being a drug dealer, but never pauses to question Daniel about all his cash or the hot new Corvette.

Elsewhere Hunter finds it wise to choose as his girlfriend the daughter of the town's only enforcement officer, confident Sergeant Frank Calhoun (Thomas Jane) is much better at spouting dark literary prose than apprehending drug dealers. William Fichtner gets the one scene as a cocaine supplier way too savvy to get into business with a snot-nosed kid like Daniel.

A lollipop scene somehow applies Sergio Leone trademarks to teenage flirtation, the soundtrack contains some good selections and the nighttime cinematography is crisp. Some details resonate, but overall Hot Summer Nights has all the lasting appeal of ice cream melting on a dirty sidewalk.

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