There will be a ton of style versus substance arguments with Hot Summer Nights, director/writer Elijah Bynum’s visually hypnotic and balls out homage to such features as Goodfellas and Boogie Nights. Is this movie more than a series of beautifully composed shots and a wonderfully curated soundtrack (kudos for the use of The Outfield’s “Your Love”)? I believe it does, but maybe you need to look a little closer at this 1991 Cape Cod set odyssey.
Plaintively listening to Linda Ronstadt’s “Long Long Time” in his bedroom, Daniel (Timothée Chalamet, delivering a worthy follow-up performance to Call Me By Your Name), is still understandably distraught over his father’s passing. His mom sends him off to Cape Cod for a summer with his aunt, and since he’s a stranger in town, Daniel initially has a difficult time in his new environment.
Successfully hiding weed from local drug dealer Hunter (Alex Roe) immediately places him in good graces, as Hunter takes the lad under his wing for some much needed bro to bro mentorship.
Daniel may appear meek around girls and intimidated by Hunter’s charisma (he’s the James Dean type bad boy in the area), but he has a mind for business and ambition. Hunter is content selling dime bags for a solid profit and staying low key in the process, but Daniel wants to scale that business on an exponential level. Their friendship eventually turns into a partnership, as they are end up moving a sizable load with the help of a higher on the food chain criminal (a sleazy Emory Cohen, turning his starry eyed Brooklyn performance on its head).
The “more money, more problems” rule applies to Daniel, whose greed for more dough may overtake his logic, and to make matters even worse he has the hots for Hunter’s sister McKayla (Maika Monroe). Hunter engages in his own relationship with a charming local named Amy (Maia Mitchell) whose father happens to be a lawman (Thomas Jane). Writer/director Elijah Bynum sets these events (which are loosely inspired by a true story) amidst the impending Hurricane Bob, so if these characters aren’t already torn apart by their respective circumstances, a natural disaster may do the trick.
Though there’s a ton of story to tell with Hot Summer Nights; its calling card rests on the audacious, cinematic flair of Bynum. Most of the entire flick feels like a fever dream, as you’re immersed in Daniel’s dizzying and oftentimes tragic universe. Under lesser hands, Hot Summer Nights would simply exist as an echo chamber to Boogie Nights and Goodfellas, but Bynum is interested in going much deeper into his material. Though Hunter and McKayla are the talk of the town thanks to their respective looks, they are given a full bodied treatment in the narrative.
Bynum also subverts the predictable coming of age story, where the protagonist learns a thing or two during a pivotal summer and we root for him or her along the way. Hot Summer Nights does not have a likable “hero,” as Daniel makes his share of horrible decisions. By the movie’s third act (which includes a standout William Fichtner cameo as a Daniel’s new drug contact), Daniel’s actions may alienate a healthy share of viewers. It’s a risky gamble from Bynum that absolutely works (since the film’s narrator is a local kid reminiscing about this time gone by, and that’s another device that works).
Chalamet may be front and center with the film, but it’s Roe and Monroe who serve as the film’s emotional anchors, and they deliver (along with Chalamet) standout performances. Mitchell and Jane are minor players in the overall narrative, but both have their respective moment in the sun.
On a purely superficial level, Hot Summer Nights can be enjoyed as a dizzying, often dazzling look at a Cape Cod youth gone by, and if it evokes classic movies we’ve come to love and adore, that’s fine too. But there’s much more to love about Hot Summer Nights, and Bynum understands all the pretty pictures and sounds are all in service of a good story. It’s a good lesson for all of us to learn, even if a hurricane is just around the corner.
Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0
Currently available on DIRECTV Cinema, Hot Summer Nights hits theaters July 27.