Certified critic on Rotten Tomatoes. Member of the Houston Film Critics Society. Also writes for Bounding Into Comics and God Hates Geeks.
Odoriferously Sweaty and Disgustingly Sticky
Hot Summer Nights is the writing and directing debut of Elijah Bynum. The screenplay sat on the Black List for two years before getting greenlit. The film debuted at South by Southwest on March 13, 2017 and took over a year to be shown on DirecTV Cinema premiering on June 28, 2018. The drama was finally picked up by A24 for a limited theatrical run starting July 27, 2018.
In 1987, Daniel Middleton (Timothée Chalamet, Call Me By Your Name) is spending his summer depressed over his dad’s death before his mom forces him to spend the rest of the summer at his aunt’s in Cape Cod. Four years later, Daniel has permanently relocated to Cape Cod yet still doesn’t fit in. It’s not until Daniel crosses paths with local town legend and pot dealer Hunter Strawberry (Alex Roe, The 5th Wave) that he begins to truly feel like he’s found his calling. Daniel teams up with Hunter to sell marijuana, but encourages Hunter to branch out and monopolize in ways he’d never dreamed of before. But Daniel becomes too ambitious as he begins to attract the attention of the wrong types of people.
There’s a reason Hot Summer Nights sat on the shelf for so long after debuting at SXSW over a year ago. The story is basically Scarface with more of an emphasis on marijuana rather than cocaine. If Scarface guest-starred on Saved by the Bell, you’d basically have Hot Summer Nights. When everyone is involved with drugs, it’s difficult to invest in the story going in a sour direction or a positive one.
Daniel isn’t the greatest guy in the world. While he gets Hunter’s weed business to explode, he also lies to him constantly and manipulates him at every turn. Daniel immediately falls for a girl named McKayla (Maika Monroe, It Follows), who happens to be Hunter’s sister. Hunter and McKayla drifted apart after their mother died since all their mother wanted was for Hunter to give up selling drugs and he never did. Hunter forbids Daniel’s pursuit of McKayla, which he blatantly ignores. McKayla wants nothing more than Daniel to not be involved with shady activities, which he continues to pretend to be a stand-up guy.
The film becomes a juggling act for Daniel as he tries to be Hunter’s partner and McKayla’s love interest without either side knowing about the other. Hot Summer Nights really only has a few aspects it can boast about; the film contains a savage gun beating that is abruptly brutal and a drug enforcer named Dex (Emory Cohen, Brooklyn), who is the middle man between Hunter and Daniel and an open door of unlimited marijuana, attempts to threaten and intimidate the two young drug dealing prospects while eating an impressive mountain of Belgian waffles. Cohen drizzles syrup, spreads slabs of butter, and points squares of waffle attached to his fork at Daniel and Hunter and it is too ridiculous not to be memorable.
The rest of the film is familiar territory; the marijuana business explodes for Daniel and Hunter overnight while one of them eventually bites off more than they can chew while the other thinks this is as good as it gets and wants things to stay the same. In a way, it plays out kind of like The Social Network only with a topless girl poorly playing the piano while William Fichtner shoots holes in the walls of his own house with a revolver as Daniel snorts baby powder.
The Daniel/McKayla love story is wishy-washy melodrama; it starts off rather innocently, then gets gross, and then it slowly tiptoes into complete annoyance. If you’re so infatuated with a girl that you’re chewing her used gum that she puts on a local pay phone and continue to suck on the lollipop she put in her mouth and then put back in yours when you know she’s been with half of Cape Cod then something is seriously wrong with you. Their romantic relationship begins with the search for Epsom salt and by the time they’re dancing in empty parking lots, making out in drive-in urinals, and ransacking a bar after hours you beg and plead to be put out of your misery like the fireflies McKayla talks about catching in jars and suffocating to death at a young age because she didn’t know any better.
You can see some promise in Timothée Chalamet, Maika Monroe, and even Emory Cohen, but the stale performances of Alex Roe and the usually awesome Thomas Jane confine the cast from reaching an excellent or even acceptable caliber. Greed and hallucinogens make obnoxious young adults even more annoying and unbearable. The drama attempts to capitalize on nostalgic elements from the 90s like video games from that time period and the editing of the film even incorporates what it was like watching a VHS tape on a VCR, but it isn’t enough to make the film worthwhile. The category 4 hurricane that bookends the beginning and ending of the film crammed with virtual effects that are too dark to distinguish any sort of detail only makes matters worse.
Hot Summer Nights is not only forgettable, but it’s predictable. This is a new filmmaker with a voice and a vision that have been executed more efficiently by anyone and everyone that came before him that his work may remind you of. A24 is usually a go to studio for outstanding films, but it is seriously disappointing that they ever saw any sort of potential in something so common and lifeless.
© 2018 Chris Sawin