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Review: 'Hot Summer Nights' is sweaty, sexy melodrama

Timothee Chalamet in "Hot Summer Nights."

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By KATIE WALSH | Tribune News Service | Published: July 24, 2018

Boy meets girl; boy also meets boy. And mixed with jealousy, drugs and the sweltering summer of 1991 on Cape Cod, the combination proves explosive. This is the tale of writer/director Elijah Bynum's debut, "Hot Summer Nights," a heady portrait of summer lust dusted with a dash of drug trafficking danger, like rainbow sprinkles on a strawberry cone. This sexy, soapy male melodrama may be a little light on gritty accuracy, but it throbs with a mind-numbing sense of longing, and during the dog days of July, it goes down like cherry ice on a hot summer night.

Timothee Chalamet stars as Daniel (not Danny, "because it sounds cool"), a depressed kid sent to wile away the summer with his aunt Barb. He's not a "townie," but he's not a "summer bird" either, living in a terrible liminal space of nonexistence. His rocket ship out is the local weed dealer and mythical heartthrob Hunter Strawberry (Alex Roe).

With a rumbling hot rod, a collection of clingy T-shirts in various states of distress and a wink that would make James Dean blush, the lascivious legends whispered about Hunter are matched only by his sister, McKayla (Maika Monroe), who has a wavy blonde mane, skin like glass and a stare so seductive it hurts. Daniel meets her at the local drive-in and is soon entranced, ignoring warnings from Hunter to stay away.

It may be coincidental, but likely not, that the morning after he meets McKayla, Daniel says he wants to go into business with Hunter. And once he gets a taste, he's hooked. Daniel is delighted with his new line of work, even when it's spattered in a Boston drug dealer's blood, or coupled with a slap over a stack of waffles courtesy of Dex (Emory Cohen), a consigliore for a heavy-hitter who enlists them to move product. He also falls into a secret romance with McKayla, drunk on forbidden fruit.

"Hot Summer Nights" skitters and shimmies pleasingly, and it's clear Bynum has taken every idea for every storytelling device and stylistic flourish he's ever had and thrown them at the screen. He makes our head spin with format swaps, most successfully with disposable camera snapshots that evoke the era.

There are so many self-reflective aesthetic choices -- and an epic needle drop in every scene -- that it all starts to feel just a little bit too busy. It's especially muddled by an unnecessary framing device, a flash-forward and narration by a local kid who breathlessly recounts every rumor and innuendo about the trio, and a whole lot of other tangential gossip, too. It elevates the three to mythological status, but it frustratingly situates them as objects, not subjects in the tale, denying them any agency -- especially McKayla, who remains a lust object for young boys who peel her chewed gum from phone booths and trade stories about her doomed exes.

Just don't try to unpack the details of the flimsy drug story -- the timeline doesn't hold up to a shred of scrutiny. Although it gives the film real stakes and menace, it's hardly about selling drugs. What it is about is seduction, longing, sexual anticipation and broken trust. And about how all that seems heightened under the blistering summer sun, salt-licked and sweat-dripped. The three lead actors could not be more suited to the task of embodying the promise of sex. Skinny and doe-eyed Chalamet has a hungry gaze, gobbling his objects of affection with his eyes, whether the coy McKayla or the hunky Hunter. It's a love triangle with Daniel at the center, in love with both McKayla, his would-be girlfriend, and his best friend Hunter, a person we watch him fall head over heels for, with each violent beating and spray of cash.

Bynum goes for broke in this daring debut, anchored by a trio of spellbinding performances, as well as a memorable Cohen, and William Fichtner in a brilliant cameo as a strung-out drug lord. While every cinematic experiment and story beat doesn't always work, "Hot Summer Nights" is downright intoxicating, oozing with panache and sensuality from every pore.

HOT SUMMER NIGHTS

3 stars
Cast: Timothee Chalamet, Alex Roe, Maika Monroe, Emory Cohen, William Fichtner, Thomas Jane.
Directed by Elijah Bynum.
Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes.
Rated R for drug content and language throughout, sexual references, and some strong violence.

(c) 2018 Tribune Content Agency, LLC
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

 

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