IFFBoston ’18 Review: ‘Hot Summer Nights’

High school summer breaks are a lot like Lana del Rey albums: romantic and bittersweet when you wistfully look back on them, but tedious when you’re in the middle of one.

With a title that recalls lyrics from del Rey’s Great Gatsby ballad “Young and Beautiful,” Hot Summer Nights is interested in the former interpretation, offering a rearview mirror perspective on a life-changing summer of 1991 full of sex, drugs, crime and betrayal. Although its an undeniably bold and stylish debut from writer-director Elijah Bynum, Hot Summer Nights, like Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby and everything Lana del Rey has ever written, struggles to break through the confusion of its own excess. It’s a fun vehicle for strong performances by Timothée Chalamet and Maika Monroe, but what, exactly, is it trying to say?

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Timothée Chalamet in “Hot Summer Nights” © A24

Chalamet plays Daniel “Danny” Middleton, a skinny, out-of-place teenager who lives alone with his widowed mom and passes the time “meditating” in his underwear and bandana, Karate Kid style. Concerned by his lack of friends and low-energy behavior, his mother ships him off to spend the summer at his aunt’s house on Cape Cod. “Sending me away for the summer—what a cliché,” he deadpans in response.

And he’s right—if you hadn’t caught on by now, Hot Summer Nights wants to let you know that it’s going to be full of cliché: the bad boy drug dealer (Alex Roe) who gets all the girls but can’t talk about his feelings, the hot blonde (Maika Monroe) who falls for the sweet out-of-towner, the overprotective dad (Thomas Calhoun) who happens to be a cop—and whose daughter (Maia Mitchell) happens to be dating the drug dealer. It’s a narrative pastiche of every coming-of-age and crime movie you’ve ever seen, and while the references each come with a wink and a nod (check out The Graduate on the playbill in the movie theater scene), they unfortunately don’t add up to anything particularly subversive.

In all fairness, Hot Summer Nights is still a delightful watch for Timmy Chalamet fans, who have been eagerly awaiting their chance to see 2017’s darling on the big screen again. Chalamet plays Danny as both goofy and tenacious: one moment he’s awkwardly stuttering “man-walks-into-a-bar” jokes, and the next he’s brazenly entering a drug den and demanding pounds of weed. Danny is more self-aware than Kyle and less measured than Elio, but it’s impossible to avoid these character comparisons—and when the bar is set by Lady Bird and Call Me By Your Name, it’s hard to measure up. It’s likely Chalamet will struggle with typecasting like this as he continues throughout his young career, but for now, he does precocious well.

Maika Monroe gives her best performance since 2014’s It Follows, another ‘80s-inspired flick with enough style to populate three movies. Although Monroe doesn’t get the kind of screen time and nuanced emotional writing she received in It Follows, she takes what could be the cookie-cutter character of McKayla Strawberry (what a name) and gives her a defiant edge tinged with sadness, helping to counter the film’s million moving parts with gravity and realism.

The too-much-ness of Hot Summer Nights can perhaps be read as excess for the sake of excess, which is as fun as it is frustrating and often confusing. For example, the movie is set in the summer of 1991, so much of the clothing and pop culture indicators shout ‘80s and ‘90s, yet most of the music that populates it soundtrack is from the ‘60s and ‘70s: think David Bowie, Mott the Hoople, and The Modern Lovers. Further confusing matters is the heavy use of ‘50s and ‘60s tropes like jukebox diners, auto-shop greasers, carnival dates and antiquated gender roles. Collectively, it feels like what would happen if you asked a 12-year-old to picture “the past.” Or perhaps more fittingly, it looks like a Lana del Rey song of confused decades and general nostalgia for something you never lived through.  

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Timothée Chalamet and Alex Roe in “Hot Summer Nights” © A24

Paired with some bold, confident camera work from Bynum, this kind of excess creates a distinct and colorful aesthetic that defines the film, but often comes before sound, logical writing. What motivates Daniel, the awkward beanpole, to become Danny, the pot-smoking, sex-having delinquent who risks all of his relationships to make the most money possible? We can assume he’s operating like a young Walter White, and that greatness and pride are at the forefront of his teenaged brain, but his otherwise sweet and savvy character doesn’t seem capable of taking many of the actions he does throughout the film—and its not explained to us otherwise. Following this train of thought, why is Hunter Strawberry (Roe) incapable of letting his sister McKayla date Danny? And why oh why must Danny make prison rape jokes? Too much of Hot Summer Nights operates on dated assumptions and Hollywood tropes without challenging them or flipping them in any compelling way.

In the film’s dramatic final act, just as it seems like all the excess and melodrama will push it over the edge into something great, Bynum pulls back, returning to a tired framing device and over-explanation that manages to be both cutesy and dark. In this way, Hot Summer Nights straddles an odd line between campy melodrama and regular old teen flick, resulting in something fun and colorful but emotionally unsatisfying. Come for Timothée, stay for the fireworks, but don’t expect much more.   

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