Film Review – Hot Summer Nights (2018)
So far both critics and audience members seem split about Elijah Bynum’s debut film Hot Summer Nights. On Rotten Tomatoes there is currently no critical consensus yet, though most reviews are lukewarm. Hot Summer Nights will be distributed on 28th of June by A24, which usually has a solid track record for interesting and original content. Those who are anxious to see this film, often mention the involvement of main star, Timothée Chalamet, who made quite an impression in the Oscar-nominated Call Me by Your Name.
So what does this MovieBabble contributor think of this film?
The following review will be spoiler free.
Directed by: Elijah Bynum
Written by: Elijah Bynum
Starring: Alex Roe, Timothée Chalamet, Maika Monroe, Maia Mitchell, Emory Cohen with Thomas Jane and William Fichtner as Shep
The story is, on occasion, told by an unseen narrator who is a thirteen-year-old boy (Shane Epstein Petrullo). His knowledge is seeped in hearsay and local myth. The film takes place over one summer, in three consecutive months, in the year of 1991.
The sudden death of his father turns Daniel (Timothée Chalamet) into a distant and contumacious teenager. Daniel’s grieving mother eventually tires of him and sends him to live with his foul-mouthed aunt (Rebecca Koon) for the summer in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. At first Daniel’s alienation increases as he doesn’t fit into either category of the Cape Cod resident; either you’re a ‘Townie’ (a person who lives there) or a ‘Summer Bird’ (a rich person who visits during the summer).
But when Daniel befriends a local drug-dealer, with the bad-ass name Hunter Strawberry (Alex Roe), and shows some surprising business acumen for the drug-dealing business himself, his life seemingly begins to turn around for the better. He also begins a heated love-affair with Hunter’s estranged sister, McKayla (Maika Monroe). Daniel is forced to keep it a secret from her brother, due to Hunter’s strict protestations against any romantic entanglements with her and the possibility of his violent reprisal.
While the summer might be grand, and the fireflies look beautiful at night, an inevitable storm is coming. Daniel’s drug dealing ambitions reach dangerous and irresponsible heights as both he and Hunter receive attention from a well-connected drug supplier, Dex (Emory Cohen).
When young screenwriter Elijah Bynum wrote the screenplay for Hot Summer Nights, he hadn’t even dreamed of directing it. Dreams like that are dangerous in Hollywood, those dreams can get you get hurt — a writing credit is ambitious enough. You do whatever you can to get the attention from the men with money, from the men who fund the creative visions for screen.
Hot Summer Nights earned a spot on the black list, which is a prestigious position for any script. Enough people liked it but its biggest issue was settling on a budget. The premise and its setting was not going to be cheap — money is always an issue. Hot Summer Nights is a coming-of-age drama with a specific period, 1991, that needed to be recreated. It had no pulp sensibilities, the crime element was minor compared to the human drama and the story would not end in grand action scenes or pulp violence. The film had no clear tone, it wasn’t a straight, romantic drama or comedy, it veered between genres. Hot Summer Nights was not attached to any luscious and profitable comic-book property; it had no proven track record. Producers always want examples of a successful formula, they are often scared to make a movie without a formula. This obviously wasn’t going to be a huge commercial hit, it was a passion project. A risk needed to be taken. And not many people like to take a risk when they could lose money in the process.
To make things more complicated, Bynum wanted to direct the film. At this time, he had no experience in directing — he wasn’t a film-school student with a couple of music videos or short films in his resume. He was completely green. Who the hell would want to invest in this ambitious coming-of-age drama from a first time director?
And then something magical happened, Imperative Entertainment got interested in producing it. When Bynum relayed his vision for the film, they even agreed to let him direct it. Concessions were made on the budget, so instead of Cape Cod they filmed a lot of scenes in Atlanta. There was certainly a learning curve for Bynum, he soon discovered directors need to make a lot of decisions very quickly. And if you think filming three scenes in a day is easy, think again! The lighting might be wrong, people are tired, and the longer hours means more money.
It wasn’t easy but Bynum made it happen, though he certainly had help from Imperative Entertainment who were just as passionate about realizing his vision. He assembled a talented cast of performers, from young and upcoming talents like Malika Monroe and Timothée Chalamet to established performers like William Fichtner and Thomas Jane.
The first cut was two hours and 45 minutes (which was way too long) but after editing it was cut down to a manageable runtime of 107 minutes. It then landed in the distributing hands of DirectTV and A24. When the trailer finally hit, it seemed like the viewer was in for a treat. Though if you have seen Inherent Vice as much as I did, you did groan a little with its use of the song “Vitamin C” by Can.
Can song aside, it’s the ending of the trailer that makes Hot Summer Nights look interesting. These short moments told us what we were in for: a story seeped in nostalgic bliss, a story full of young, wild passion, and the inevitable heartbreak at summer’s end. We watch as an emotional storm brews into the final act that’s destined for tragedy. Violence will erupt, and lives will end. A beautiful, melancholic piano tune plays in the background as we hear the Thomas Jane’s ominous narration: ”It happens every summer, when the air is so heavy you can’t breath. The nights turn long and sleepless and you long for cooler times. And you know what it is? It’s going to tear you apart.”
Though some reviews that came out after festival screenings were lukewarm, I was genuinely excited about this film. This was going to be something different from the usual fluff on the big screen. But could it live up to its promising trailer?
A Beautiful Haze
One of the greatest commodities in pop culture right now is nostalgia. Original projects are hard to sell these days — it’s better to sell something established, like a reboot dressed up as belated sequel; try to make it as inoffensive as possible. If you have the right ingredients, as well as the proper timing, you’ve got yourself a possible hit.
A lot of films bank on nostalgia and attempt to explore that theme. The past always seems brighter as we head into an uncertain future. Retro-style is cool nowadays! People love watching Stranger Things for that very reason, as it reminds them of the synth-infused stories of the eighties. They yearn for that wonder, something that cinematic masters like Steven Spielberg used to give us. That wonder is now forever gone — it’s been exploited to death and it now belongs to an older style of cinema. Yet, we desperately want it back and run towards any filmmaker who is willing to replicate it somehow. Sometimes this works out and results in decent entertainment. And other times, such as the latest from the Jurassic Park and the Star Wars franchises, it seems depressingly cynical.
Elijah Bynum’s wonderful debut is essentially all about nostalgia. The film switches from narration by a naive thirteen-year-old boy, to the perspectives of the main character around him. This narration is often punctuated by hormonal diatribes, which some reviewers have deemed too misogynistic which is simply not fair. It simply stays true to his perspective and one’s perspective might not be politically correct — as usual people want the morality of characters to be clean on screen. But that’s just not the point of a storyteller. The story he tells is based on hearsay and local myth. All storytellers exaggerate along the way and the audience is supposed to be wise enough to make their own conclusions.
By the time we get to the ending, we don’t know what is true or not. Some aspects of the story could have been imagined by the thirteen-year-old boy (a lot can be fabricated by a thirteen-year-old imagination). Reality could have been much darker. Though the film can be dreamlike at times, it doesn’t skimp from the grim reality lurking underneath the lives of these characters.
Hot Summer Nights isn’t a film about factual truth. The title scroll in the beginning even hints at the fictitious nature of events portrayed: The following is (mostly) a true story. Most films change true stories for narrative purposes, but this film is about the emotional truth in the story. The feelings attached to the stories shown on screen are real, even if the rest is not exactly accurate. When we tell stories to one another, we attach our emotional stakes in them — a filmmaker does the same thing. He/She wants to convey a certain emotion to the audience, to make us empathize for the plight of these characters.
In the case of Hot Summer Nights, we are get into very hazy territory. Since we are dealing with the rambunctious nature of youth, the fiery hormones, and human trying to figure themselves out it’s chaotic. There’s the fear of a broken future and the prospect of either complete victory or defeat. There’s the need to break the rules and to discover new things. And there is impossible love and dreams of impossible things. You think you know it all and then suddenly you get your heart broken.
Add to this that the teenagers in Hot Summer Nights are emotionally damaged. The three principal characters, Daniel, Hunter and McKayla have all had a parental figure die. Their tranquil order to their lives were destroyed in an instant. The one parental figure left can bare the tragedy either and they become distant, turning to alcohol for relief. The kids are left to fend for their own emotional needs and this leads them to finding comfort in sex and drugs.
Throughout these moments they have with one and other and the connection they feel at the height of their highs. Things seem so perfect. Even with all the messiness in their lives, they seemingly found a purpose. They are there for each other and they aren’t alone anymore. They bond through acts of self-destruction, laughing through billows of smoke. There’s no more pain inside, no need to face any of their demons, and yesterday and tomorrow doesn’t matter. Only this moment, this beautiful haze.
The Obvious Inspirations
The poetic nature of this film is beautifully realized by first time director Elijah Bynum and his inspirations are obvious. The style of narration, the occasional comical interruptions by guest characters make the film feels like Martin Scorsese‘s Goodfellas. And while the boy narrating has a regional New England accent that differs from Henry Hill’s (Ray Liotta) Italian-American accent, we still hear reminiscent tough-guy overtures.
The true inspiration for Hot Summer Nights seems to be Paul Thomas Anderson‘s Boogie Nights. There’s even an homage/recreation of a montage sequence in Boogie Nights –– which also co-starred Thomas Jane. A part of me really likes this, another part of me felt that this wasn’t needed. We can already feel the inspiration on screen, it didn’t need to be made more obvious.
This film also features, similar to Goodfellas and Boogie Nights, a great soundtrack. Since the film takes place in 1991, the moment of transition between the eighties (80’s) and nighties (90’s), we get a nice mixture of music from both eras. We also get moments of eighties (80’s?) cheese and some of the melancholic nineties (90’s) — one particularly fun montage features Baltimora’s Tarzan Boy.
Bynum has stated that Cape Cod feels a lot like 1950’s Americana, especially with the presence of old-school diners and drive-in cinemas. The soundtrack likewise has quite a few instances of fifties (50’s) doo-wop songs. Hot Summer Nights‘ soundtrack is not limited to just one genre or era, as we also venture into the seventies (70’s) during the film’s arguably most romantic scene. During this romantic scene, we are gifted David Bowie‘s Space Oddity. It’s truly a real nice blend. Even if you don’t care about the story, the soundtrack will certainly keep you interested.
Before this film came out, there were a lot of positive comments about Timothée Chalamet’s presence in the film. This was mostly due to his breakout performance in Call Me by Your Name (which I admit to not seeing yet). People hailed him as the next big thing, so it was hard to expect anything else than brilliant from the young actor. And overall he absolutely delivers.
We first see him sitting in his room, a kamikaze bandanna wrapped around his head. He is completely seeped in his own grief over his father’s passing, despite his mother trying to communicate with him. We are fully engaged in his story alone. You can see a young man trapped in his own angst, a young man longing for the ultimate escape. There’s a meekness to his character, a boyish innocence that’s desperately trying to be exorcised.
Alex Roe as Hunter Strawberry, is a perfect counterpart to Chalamet’s Daniel. While Daniel is socially awkward and brimming with sexual frustration, Hunter is brazenly self-assured and professional hound-dog. In fact, I have to say that Roe made more of an impact on me. This is probably because his character is just a lot more interesting! Hunter is the consummate underachiever, someone with potential but without imagination. He is absolutely fearless and refuses to back down for anybody. In the film’s most violent scene, we see him beat a drug-dealer to death to defend Daniel. We watch as blood spurts on Daniel’s face as he watches Hunter beat the drug-dealer with a revolver (which made me think of Goodfellas again).
Beneath his propensity for extreme violence, there lives a longing to be understood, a longing for tenderness and a longing for a normal way of life. When we finally learn more about his background, and even though he is responsible for the bad things in his life, we can’t help but sympathize with him. His eventual redemptive arc, which collides with an endearing local girl, Amy (Maia Mitchell), and her perceptive father, Calhoun (Thomas Jane), is the most interesting of the film. It almost makes you wish the film was more about Hunter than about Daniel.
William Fichtner appears only in one lengthy scene as cynical drug-dealer Shep. He then teaches Daniel a valuable, but extremely tough lesson. Even though I could have used more Fichtner in this movie — you could always use more Fichtner in your life — his one scene was one of the best in the entire film. It’s filled with agonizing tension and has afantastic pay-off. The beautiful piano rendition in the trailer also plays in this scene and I think it’s just as good there as in the trailer.
Maika Monroe, from It Follows fame and the recent Netflix’s sci-fi-thriller TAU, has probably the hardest job of all. This is especially true in the early scenes where her character seems more cinematic compared to the more realistic feeling characters. Playing the local sexpot McKayla, she oozes the appropriate sexuality but eventually reveals the broken spirit within her confident facade. On paper, her character seems the least interesting but Monroe manages to give the character some hidden depth. Instead of just being another romantic interest, she becomes a well-rounded character, a girl trying to fulfill a void within herself.
For all my praise of the film, I did feel like Hot Summer Nights was missing something. After nearly a two-hour journey, I wasn’t as emotionally engaged towards the end as I was in the beginning. At first I wasn’t sure what was missing since all the ingredients were there. Yet, I quickly realized that the essential emotional weight just wasn’t really there. You knew how everything would eventually go, it was laid out from the very beginning.
The problem, weirdly, lies less in its directing and more with the writing. Daniel’s journey didn’t have enough psychological build-up. We understand why he’s being hedonistic or interested in dealing drugs, but his eventual change doesn’t feel organic.
Hunter’s arc works better but even so, there was something missing there, too. You understand his final decision but it would have worked better if there was deeper kinship with Daniel. You don’t really feel the connection between them and this is a film exclusively about feeling. Their friendship should be the end-all of all friendships but there was more time spent on their love affairs and this made the ending feel hollow.
Another problem in Hot Summer Nights is some scenes, however well-directed and performed, feel out-of-place. This is especially the case with Emory Cohen as Dex, whose character seems to have come from a very different film. His erudite way of speaking doesn’t gel with the rest of the movie, it feels like someone was trying too hard to make him sound like a sophisticated gangster. While you watch him chomp down a mountain of pancakes laced with syrup, it feels like the writer tried to give him an interesting quirk but it doesn’t feel like it belongs in this film. His final stand-off with one of the characters is also disappointing. Despite Cohen’s great performance, his character just feels too much like a gangster cliché.
There were also stylistic choices to the film that felt unnecessary. In one particular sequence, Daniel is introduced to marijuana and this is edited with footage of an anti-marijuana commercial. I am not sure what the point of this was, perhaps to be comical? But it doesn’t work, it just distracts from the narrative. The flow is disrupted by strange choices like this throughout the film. This is why Martin Scorsese is so great, his stylistic choices don’t distract from the narrative. Bynum really wanted to impress the viewer but he should have shown a little more restraint.
The odd stylistic choices extend into McKayla’s introduction to the film. When Daniel first encounters her, she just steps inside his car during a drive-in movie, and asks him for a ride after a fight with a lover. This feels, again, too cinematic — like the stuff you’d see in a lesser film. Their first encounter should have been more mundane. It’s a testament to the great chemistry between Chalamet and Monroe, that their romance still works on screen. Daniel hiding his affair with McKayla through the film, and his partnership with Hunter from Kayla, also stretches credibility at times.
There’s also necessary looseness missing from this narrative, it feels too controlled. The film is about one summer, where within three months, lives are changed forever. The film is about youth in all its uninhibited glory, but it doesn’t have that freewheeling tone to it that this story deserves. And that’s the main problem!
For all of Bynum’s obvious talent as a storyteller, his tone just doesn’t strike the right balance. The tone it reaches for is something like Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights (perhaps mixed with Rob Reiner‘s mournful Stand by Me) but it needed to stand out more. It needed to step away from its influences and become more anarchic. Either the ending should have been more mundane or filled with more violent madness. I’m not sure and the missing link hampers this film from becoming a masterpiece. Hot Summer Nights could have been something truly great and unforgettable.
This is an impressive directing debut by Elijah Bynum, but it is just shy of being great. If the story would have been less predictable, if the character dynamics would have been a little more interesting, the end result could have been a cinematic masterpiece. It never reaches greatness, but it does introduce a promising new filmmaker by the name of Elijah Bynum.
Despite its flaws, there are great performances, beautiful cinematography and a rocking soundtrack to keep the viewer engaged. I wish I could give it a higher rating but a B is all it deserves. I do want to implore people to give this film a chance — we need more films like this. We need more original content from creators who are free to enact their vision.
Thank you for reading! What are you thoughts on Hot Summer Nights? Comment down below!
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