Hot Summer Nights, the debut feature by writer-director Elijah Bynum, perfectly captures the gloriously messy angst of youth in a way that few recent films recall, with a hazy, dreamlike meditation on young lust that’s set along the northeastern seaboard in the early 1990s.
Whenever the film slows down to fixate on its doomed lovers, Daniel and McKayla, Hot Summer Nights crackles and vibrates with palpable sexual tension.
But, to be fair, their story is but half of the movie, and the rest of Bynum’s free-spirited fable is a hot mess, punctuated by too many moments that feel ripped from a teenaged version of Goodfellas.
It's unfortunate because there's a lot to like here.
Hot Summer Nights is framed from the perspective of a young boy communicating bits and pieces of a larger story, complete with embellishments. Characters don’t just disappear; they were never heard from again, or they were last seen speeding south. While this is one of those movies that utilizes voiceover narration, which I normally detest, in Bynum’s hands, the tired trope transforms into a literal game of childhood telephone.
Timothée Chalamet, fresh off an Oscar nomination for Call Me by Your Name, plays Daniel, a young man still reeling from the death of his father, whose mother refuses to let him sit inside moping. She ships him off to his Aunt Barb’s house to spend a summer in Cape Cod.
Shy and awkward, at first, Daniel fumbles basic small talk at a house party, freezes up around pretty girls and almost immediately gets a job working at a local gas station. It’s there that he first meets Hunter (Alex Roe), a brooding bad boy and the local weed dealer. Hunter has long been the white whale of local law enforcement, especially Sgt. Calhoun (Thomas Jane, so soft-spoken he’s almost unrecognizable).
Daniel helps Hunter avoid being busted, and Hunter in turn takes Daniel to another house party where Daniel gets high for the first time. Almost immediately, Daniel wants in on Hunter’s business, and their criminal machinations form the thrust of Hot Summer Nights.
Not surprisingly, this narrative through-line is the weakest link in Bynum’s film, if only because you’ve seen this story so many times before.
Of course, Daniel is a fast learner, and suddenly he’s encouraging Hunter to expand his criminal empire, which immediately puts them in the cross-hairs of the local drug kingpin. As the kingpin supplies two pounds of pot and then four, six pounds and then eight, it becomes clear that Daniel and Hunter are headed for a big fall where somebody gets hurt.
None of it seems real, and maybe that’s the point.
Maybe this is all part of Bynum’s design, to present Daniel’s story like a local legend come to brief, bizarre life during that one crazy summer that the locals still talk about.
It’s possible because at one point, inexplicably, Daniel starts acting like he’s Tony Montana in Scarface, as he pressures Hunter to level up from weed to cocaine. This brief segue seems to exist only to allow Bynum to introduce William Fichtner as Shep, a creepy cocaine dealer, for a ridiculous aside that feels like an unnecessary sequence from Boogie Nights that landed on the editing room floor.
If Hot Summer Nights is just a fable, maybe that’s why Bynum fails to follow through on several fronts. For instance, not once does Daniel’s mother call to check on him, and his crazy aunt is nonexistent for pretty much the entire film. Such glaring omissions further strain credibility, if what we’re watching is supposed to be anchored in some semblance of truth.
The parts of Hot Summer Nights that are believable, and are actually pretty magnificent, are those featuring Daniel and McKayla (Maika Monroe), who is Hunter’s estranged sister. Hunter has no qualms telling Daniel that he will straight-up murder any guy who makes the moves on McKayla, which creates a realistic quandary once Daniel’s would-be Romeo sets his sights on the town’s untouchable Juliet.
McKayla is that girl, the hottest, smartest, most unobtainable female that every guy in every high school fantasized about but never could call forth the courage to actually address. She’s the kind of girl who can cut a boy down to size with just a single look, but if you’re extra special, she will walk up, take your lollipop and give it a lick before sticking it back in your mouth and walking away.
Monroe, so good in It Follows, delivers another breakout performance. She perfectly embodies McKayla’s bad-girl exterior (she only dates older boys, has a reputation a mile long, smokes seductively and dresses provocatively), while also making you see the vulnerable young woman at heart, the one who longs to meet someone real and escape her tired, tiny town.
The scenes of McKayla’s brief courtship with Daniel are mesmerizing.
Whether girding up the courage to approach unexpectedly and deliver a passionate kiss or simply dancing across an empty parking lot together late at night, each movement and moment is authentic and achingly real.
If Hot Summer Nights had spent more time focused on them, as well as Hunter, who has a poignant fling with Calhoun’s daughter Amy (Maia Mitchell), you’d likely be reading a much different review.
As it is, Hot Summer Nights is an interesting but unfinished coming-of-age story.
It’s worthy of a watch, but it’s better-suited for an at-home viewing, where you can stretch out and reminisce about your first love and buying dank dime bags, back during a time when the days dragged but the nights were electric and felt like they would never end.
John W. Allman has spent more than 25 years as a professional journalist and writer, but he’s loved movies his entire life. Good movies, awful movies, movies that are so gloriously bad you can’t help but champion them. Since 2009, he has cultivated a review column and now a website dedicated to the genre films that often get overlooked and interviews with cult cinema favorites like George A. Romero, Bruce Campbell and Dee Wallace. Contact him at Blood Violence and Babes.com, on Facebook @BloodViolenceBabes or on Twitter @BVB_reviews.