Hot Summer Nights (2017)
★★ / ★★★★
Those looking for plot in “Hot Summer Nights,” written and directed by Elijah Bynum, are certain to find it—and, much to their dismay, it is as generic as tap water: a teenager is sent to Cape Cod for the summer and learns to sell drugs—first to fit in, then for the money, and, finally, just because he realizes he is good at it. Drugs becomes a part of who he is—at least for the time being. When the picture gets it right, it is an amusing and alluring visual experience. I admired that it is able to transport us into the early ‘90s when nearly everything—from fashion, local lingo, to family values—is in a state of transition. At the same time, however, when the material gets it wrong, it is nearly unbearable—its third act particularly painful, contrived, in its heavy-handedness of fate and self-fulfilling prophecies.
Bynum’s use of the camera is eye-catching because he knows his subjects are physically beautiful and so he is not afraid to admire them. Notice how the camera is fond of close-ups, the manner in which it lingers on the hooded eyes of Timothée Chalamet and Maika Monroe as their characters, Daniel and McKayla, attempt to figure out the depth of their seemingly effortless magnetism. The performers’ chemistry is strong despite the fact that their characters are not particularly well-written. For instance, Daniel is initially interesting because he is still mourning his father’s death but his mother decides to send him away anyway in order to push him to get over his depression. His sadness and feelings of uselessness are then rerouted when drugs enter the equation. Suddenly, he is high and feels useful for being of service.
The picture captures what summer is about when one is young and the future feels like thousands of years away. I enjoyed the little details like socially inept boys admiring popular girls from afar, rumors entertained while being in a bubble, lovebirds sharing a lollipop, the type of cars older boys with certain reputations tend to drive, milkshakes, the subdued excitement of visiting a carnival that has been in town for a while, fireworks on the Fourth of July. It is also a nice touch to include a boy’s enthusiastic narration—a figure whom we come to meet only toward the very end of the story. These beautiful and extraneous details need not be shown or highlighted and yet somehow, collectively, they elevate the experience.
But coming-of-age stories are almost always required to paint rich interior lives of its subjects. While Daniel and McKayla get plenty of screen time, it can be argued that the more interesting relationship is not a romantic one. McKayla and Hunter (Alex Roe) are estranged siblings whose connection is destroyed by drugs. The material touches upon how selling drugs can be an addiction in itself but this fascinating angle is never explored—unfortunate because it is directly tied to our protagonist, Daniel, gambling his future for immediate gratification. He gets into a business partnership with none other than Hunter, the highly protective brother who is capable of sending someone to the hospital with his bare hands.
“Hot Summer Nights” does not end strong. It is so cliché to set the climax during a Category 4 hurricane. During my boredom, I imagined an alternate timeline where Daniel’s story ends in a quiet but still melancholy way. The thing about summers—as wonderful or as horrible as they are—is that we know all of it has to come to an end eventually. And so why not choose to tell a fresher avenue to reach the final destination? Must a storm to be employed to underline the tragedy of the story? Must it end on a tragic note at all just because the story involves dealing drugs? The melodrama is unnecessary.