Hot Summer Nights aspires to be little more than a flipbook through the 90s. Carnivals, diners, and drive-in movie theaters make up most of the backdrop, but nothing ever feels authentic as the motivation for anything happening on screen is quickly left behind for the flashy elements of drugs, sex, and hyper-masculinity.
The only real saving grace is Timothée Chalamet. By that, I mean it’s clear Call Me By Your Name and his Oscar nomination weren’t merely flukes. He’s got the chops. But it’s difficult to connect with his awkward, new-in-town Daniel (or Danny, ’cause it’s cool?). One of the most odd decisions of the entire film is the narrative framework. Narration can be a hit or a miss, and it’s definitely a miss when your narrator is never introduced and talks about the events and characters of the story as if they’re legendary tales of adventures, and then doesn’t follow up. By that standard, it leaves Danny as a character we never really know, and who’s motivations never make complete sense.
Mystery surrounds our three main characters. The bad boy of the town, Hunter (Alex Roe), is dripping in vagueness, but at least has an understandable bad-boy-wants-to-be-good-for-a-girl story. He’s also got that hyper-masculinity thing going on, though, largely for inexplicable reasons. He’s constantly telling Danny, who has a crush on his sister McKayla (Maika Monroe), to not go near her, even though the siblings are estranged. It’s a weird and overdone trope that I thought we’d left behind in this day-and-age. However, there is one truly inspired moment in the film regarding Hunter — he’s dating the local cop’s daughter, Amy (Maia Mitchell), but instead of an overbearing father, the confrontation between the two becomes a moment of compassion for a kid who needs to get his life together; not just for the girl, but for himself. It’s the only genuine self-awareness the film has, and I wish it could have taken this scene and applied that sense of effectiveness in other aspects.
As the only two women, Amy and McKayla’s roles are purely as objects of desire. For Hunter, Amy represents a better life, one that would redeem his previous transgressions (to wit — selling drugs, taking drugs, and maybe killing a guy). McKayla is the girl everybody wants, as the narrator tells us over and over again. When Danny and McKayla meet, they’re thrust into a whirlwind romance that neither seem to know what to do with. The only remotely interesting part of their affair are the lies Danny traps himself in between Hunter and McKayla. As Danny grows increasingly erratic in his desires, the end results lead to an unsatisfying conclusion for all three characters.
There doesn’t seem to be a plot here. Whatever happens to move the events through the summer — neon title cards declaring that we’ve moved into a new month, at odd intervals — is mostly told off screen. Danny has a cousin that’s known in the drug world, but whom we never see. Danny and Hunter have meager success at selling drugs right after they decide to sell drugs. Just like with Danny’s name, every move Danny makes seems to be because it’s cool. Sell weed? Cool. Smoke weed? Cool. Deal in cocaine? Cool, plus more money. Nothing happens with intention, and so the fates of the characters have no emotion.
As a debut for writer-director Elijah Bynum, Hot Summer Nights is more interested in style over substance, character tropes over character. Without that, the audience is just as lost as the characters on screen.