Film Review: ‘Hot Summer Nights’: How Fatherless Sons Squander Talent
Following hot on the heels of “Eighth Grade,” an ode to middle-school-lack-of-cool, comes “Hot Summer Nights,” an ode to too-cool-for-school, tragic youth. Like “Eighth Grade,” it might quickly become another high-school-ish, nostalgia-ridden, instant American film favorite.
Remember growing up, that one crazy kid, known countywide, who got his seventh grade teacher pregnant and beat up half the football team? Every American county’s got one, loathed by cops everywhere.
“Hot Summer Nights” is the story of that black-leather-jacketed, pretty-faced, Cro-Magnon eye-browed bad boy, and his panther-like, cherry-red Camaro, and how he tragically never found a positive way to focus his energy. That’s the tertiary plot.
The secondary plot is about a likewise legendary teen goddess. Remember your town’s goddess? The one who haunted dreams, caused hyperventilation, had boys walking into telephone poles and falling off chairs trying to sniff her perfume? Who, when she stuck her used gum under some filthy phone booth, young boys ran over and ate it?
The primary story is about a nerdy boy, taken under the bad boy’s wing. And the nerd gets the teen goddess. Only problem is, the goddess is the bad boy’s little sister, and thoroughly off-limits by pain of death.
Cape Cod, Massachusetts
It’s the summer of 1991. Daniel (Timothée Chalamet), a headstrong, eccentric boy, is offloaded by his frustrated mother. She can’t take him sitting around the house meditating in his underwear.
Daniel ends up stuck in a social no man’s land between the Cape Cod townies and the summering elite. He can’t relate to either set.
Cue a hilarious talking-heads montage of locals that run down the oral history of one Hunter Strawberry (Alex Roe), juvenile delinquent extraordinaire, who screeches to a stop outside the run-down gas station Daniel cashiers at with a cop hot on his tail, and ditches some weed. Hunter deals to elite vacationers. Daniel puts it in the cash register.
Since Daniel demonstrated coolness under pressure, Hunter soon takes him under his wing, only to have the kid’s heretofore latent mega-talent for business explode, making them both rich beyond their dreams, with oodles of cash on display, reminiscent of “American Made,” and owing much to “Goodfellas.”
There follows much teen-summering mayhem: “Terminator 2” at the drive-in, gaming at the arcade, and of course—the local carnival. If you want to go for an Americana listing, just put a Ferris wheel tableaux somewhere in your movie.
Young Daniel, of course, falls for heartthrob McKayla (Maika Monroe). A captivating performance by Chalamet shows how he captures her heart through his ability to endure and overcome his nerd-versus-goddess discomfort. She senses alpha strength at his core, the hidden brashness that fuels a talent for controlled-substance entrepreneurship that outstrips her brother’s.
But that’s all behind her back. Because she’s disowned Hunter (he broke his mother’s heart by refusing to quit dealing), and she’ll drop Daniel in a heartbeat if she finds out what he’s up to. So Daniel can’t tell Hunter he’s seeing McKayla, and can’t tell McKayla he’s in weed-cahoots with her brother. A rock and a hard place.
Hunter, conversely, with the immense languor born of godlike looks, goes after Amy (Maia Mitchell), the daughter of (naturally) the local cop (Thomas Jane). That’s a fun courtship too:
Amy: “I have a boyfriend” (proceeds to drown her fries with ketchup).
Hunter: “No you don’t.”
Amy: “Yes I do.”
Hunter: “No you don’t, but if you keep lookin’ that cute—you will. Soon.”
Amy: “You don’t know anything about me.”
Hunter: “I know you like ketchup.”
It’s largely director Elijah Bynum’s casting that makes this movie. Like most high school/coming-of-age movies, in particular “American Graffiti,” one senses all of these pre-fame actors will go on to major careers.
Chalamet’s already there, having recently received major accolades for “Call Me By Your Name,” and he crushes this role with a performance that echoes Walter White’s (Bryan Cranston) transition from a meek to a more ferocious character in “Breaking Bad.”
Alex Roe is possibly the next Chris Pine. All the more impressive is that he nails this American archetype, Cape Cod accent and all, and he’s British.
Maika Monroe as McKayla is luminous and haunting, as the hidden, rock-solid moral core of the story. Veteran actor Thomas Jane, as the cop who would normally want to shoot Hunter for dating his daughter but gives him guidance instead (for reasons that are too spoiler-ish to talk about), is quietly powerful. And William Fichtner as the wise and wily cocaine dealer, who likewise guides the wet-behind-the-ears Daniel to avoid getting his young, foolish self killed, is outstanding.
Bynum pretty much nailed it on his first time out of the starting gate. Tonally, it’s a little scattershot; but overall, it’s deeply engrossing, and the above mentioned heartthrob archetypes will haunt you for a few days.
‘Good Times Bad Times’
“In the days of my youth, I was told what it means to be a man. Now I’ve reached that age, I’ve tried to do all those things the best I can. No matter how I try, I find my way into the same old jam.” (Led Zeppelin).
Sometimes real-life bad-boy stories have a good ending. If these kids get their energy focused (the type of energy where a 2-year-old climbs out of his crib and is discovered marching confidently down the road in diapers, at 3 a.m., two miles from home. “Where ya goin’ honey?” “Goo-goo-ga-ga!”), they become U.S. Navy SEALs.
Sometimes they go from bad to worse. Roughly 35 years ago, in Indiana, there was a young red-haired hell-raiser named Bill Rose Jr., despised by cops everywhere. Bill Rose later changed his first name to Axl. He may have racked up a lot more karma helming legendary rock band Guns N’ Roses than if he’d remained a small-town cop-irritant. Some might see that as success, but if you listen to the transition in the song “Rocket Queen” and think about how that recorded bit of live sex (by Axl) has been influencing young teens the world over for the past 30 years, it gives you pause.
When fathers go missing and/or boys have no mature male community to catch these falls from grace and focus exceptional energy in positive ways, you get a Hunter or a Daniel. Both fatherless sons.
‘Hot Summer Nights’
Director: Elijah Bynum
Starring: Timothée Chalamet, Maika Monroe, Alex Roe, Emory Cohen, Thomas Jane, Maia Mitchell, William Fichtner
Running Time: 1 hour, 47 minutes
Release Date: Available now on DIRECTV and in Theaters July 27
Rated 3.5 stars out of 5