Amidst a haze of pink and green, kitschy filters, fourth wall-breaking, and cute, cookie-cutter stereotypes, lies a sarcastic yet awkwardly sincere coming-of-age ode to the 90s, and it’s a sugary, nostalgic skin encompassing an absence of much else. Hot Summer Nights, from first time director Elijah Bynum, whose script was blacklisted back in 2013 because no executives wanted to take a chance on it (back before nostalgia was proven profitable), is told through the narration of an unknown thirteen-year-old and through the eyes of Daniel Middleton, a glassy-eyed Timotheé Chalamet who just might have sleep-walked through the whole thing. It’s not really clear how this unnamed pre-teen was able to obtain so much intimate information on Daniel, as he reminisces to the audience about this stormy summer and the kid that got caught up in the middle of it, but I suppose we’re meant to understand that, through numerous instances of speaking-directly-to-the-camera schtick, things just have a way of getting around a small, gossipy town obsessed with the way that things appear (a theme introduced towards the start of the film but which never gets much of a comeback – and that happens more than once). And who is Daniel Middleton? Well, that’s a really good question.
It all begins with Daniel, emotionally bulldozed by the death of his father, being sent to stay with his elderly aunt in Cape Cod, Massachusetts for the entirety of his summer vacation. “Sending me away for the summer. What a cliché,” Daniel drawls to his mom as the two of them stare upon his father’s gravestone, a wink and a nod to the audience that this film also hates the platitudes brought upon by nineties cinema that it is simultaneously embracing and exploiting. So Daniel’s time with his aunt begins and ends when he touches down in Cape Cod, since we only ever see her once or twice for the duration of film and for all the audience knows, she could’ve died. Through narration and, albeit charming, resident testimony, we learn that the town is comprised of two main groups; summer birds – rich kids who are vacationing there – and townies – the people that have lived there all their life – and Daniel is neither of them. This puts him into an awkward, outcasted spot that he is immediately removed from not twenty minutes into the film, upon the advent of resident bad ass, Hunter “Strawberry” (an undeniably committed Alex Roe), a white boy you couldn’t pick out of a lineup to save your life and whose last name I put in quotations because it’s ridiculous.
Hunter and Daniel’s fast friendship goes from zero to one-hundred quite literally, beginning with Daniel being tasked in the blink of an eye to help Hunter hide his weed from a cop, while Daniel’s on the job at a convenience store (a job we never see Daniel acquire, return to, or even leave from), moving quickly to Daniel being invited to smoke weed with Hunter, to Daniel and Hunter, best boys for life (Hunter’s gonna call him “Danny” now; a common nickname for “Daniel” that’s treated like a game changer), all under the span of a month. It’s especially confusing, since Hunter is portrayed as being the ultimate untouchable cool boy, and Daniel the ultimate wiener, though the latter is particularly unbelievable since Timotheé Chalamet has dream-boat eyes that could sail anyone with a modicum of a beating heart away on the cruise of a lifetime.
Even more bewildering is the journey of inner change that Daniel goes on; one of his initial scenes consists of him dorkily meditating in his room with a Karate Kid headband wrapped around his head, then suddenly he’s firmly grasped the inner workings of the weed-dealing world. Oh, that’s Hunter “Strawberry’s” thing; he’s the town’s drug dealer, keeping teenagers and the bored middle-aged alike floating high as a kite, and Daniel wants a piece of the action. It’s his eyes-bigger-than-his-stomach mindset, pushing Hunter to buy more to make more, that sends the unlikely duo into their eventual bout of misfortune. Daniel also wants a piece of Hunter’s estranged sister, Mckayla (Maika Monroe, charming as ever), characterized at Cape Cod’s It Girl, a girl whose chewed gum was chewed once more by a boy who died in a car accident shortly after, and whose other relationships were also, apparently, plagued by later death. It’s a disturbing tidbit never once brought up again beyond the initial narration, nor shown emotively in McKayala’s character. You’d think something like that would change a person.
But it doesn’t, because Mckayla isn’t a person. Neither is Daniel, nor Hunter, nor any of the other characters that show up in this film (there’s Officer Calhoun, played by Thomas Jane, a cop whose been on Hunter’s tail from the get-go, who enjoys pulling over teenagers to recite cryptic soliloquies like he’s Matthew McConaughey in True Detective, and is, coincidentally, the father of the rando girl Hunter starts dating sometime after the midway point of the film with little to no set-up). The necessary development needed to carry Daniel from Point A of awkward weirdo to Point B of ego-swollen money-monger, is never established, and so the journey between these points is both baffling and exhausting. There’s no reason for Daniel and Hunter to be friends other than for a quick favor and smoking weed one time, and there’s no reason for McKayala to be eyeing Daniel the way she is, because in this movie’s reality-violating universe, Timotheé Chalamet is extraordinarily undesirable (at one point, Mckayla’s friend regards Daniel as having caused her tampon to crawl “up into her stomach”). There’s no reason for any of these characters to have the relationships that they do because we’re not given any real reason for their existence. Daniel’s character arc is nearly non-existent itself, since who he starts off as is never clear, and who he ends up as is entirely uncertain. Daniel never “comes of age” because he had no established place to come from. Even the villain, who shows up out of nowhere and who we’re supposed to perceive as a genuine threat, is given so little screen time, let alone much motivation or inherent menace, that he’s almost useless to the story.
There’s not enough satirical evidence to support that the film is merely poking fun at these tropes and stereotypical husks of people, just as there’s no intelligence in using cheek and snark to acknowledge the clichéd sins of the filmmaking past if such acknowledgments have nothing more to tell us than “that used to be dumb, right?” Hot Summer Nights somehow wants you to understand it rejects the tropes it simultaneously celebrates, so as self-aware as it professes to be, it doesn’t feel nearly enough to carry the sheer weight of these broken characters embroiled in a story that’s not worth watching. It’s not enough to lace funny edits, clever exposition-deliveries, a juggernaut of obvious pop songs, and a little girl saying “fuck” to the camera like ornate drapery about your film if there’s only emptiness lying underneath it. We’re introduced to characters that should be emotionally damaged by the experiences they’ve lived through, but instead they jump from personality trait to personality trait like hopping across pieces of furniture in a game of “The Floor is Lava.” What we’re left with is a build-up to emotional climaxes that yield no pay-off, a plot with every predictable beat, and window dressing that stays ever-charming until the bitter and unsatisfying end.
“Remember the 90s?” Hot Summer Nights asks you, with the goofy fashions worn by preppy girls and guys, the VHS-style fuzz decorating the title card and subsequent time-establishing text, and the opening bars of The Outfield’s “Your Love,” a song that was actually released in ’86 and exists amidst a soundtrack that is partly out of its own decade. Remember the 90s, and the hollow stereotypes that plagued teen films, the weak plots, the bad dialogue, and the melodrama. Hot Summer Nights embodies all these same aspects, but neither exploits them, nor builds off them, nor satirizes them. It is only sincere with them, and in a way that is stupendously weaker, far less insightful and with less heart than many popular teen movies of the 90s. While there is undoubtedly life existing within the hollow shell that is Hot Summer Nights, personality and charisma that could be better served entwined with a smarter script, and actors with more talent and flexibility than what they’re allowed, the film leaves you feeling cheated by what could’ve been, rather than by the “what-could’ve-beens” between its own characters. A film that briefly grasps at a theme such as “keeping up appearances” hinges entirely on appearances itself. Nostalgia doesn’t have to be the marketing scheme it’s made out as, but it can’t exist in the storytelling world without legs to prop up its shaky, sentimental frame; otherwise, we’d just prefer to forget.
By Brianna Zigler
Brianna Zigler is a graduate in Film-Video and Writing from Penn State University with big plans and not a lot of planning. She is passionate about film and writing about film and also talking about film but can’t really decide which she wants to do with her life, but it’s not a big deal (that’s future Brianna’s problem). She loves horror, absurdism, Twin Peaks, is a die-hard Wes Anderson fan, and currently has almost 250 movies in her watchlist. Her favorite films are What We Do in the Shadows, A Serious Man, Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Swiss Army Man, and Suspiria. She met Greg Sestero once and it was weird. You can follow her on Twitter @briannazigs