Review: Timothée Chalamet lusts, loves and sells dope in the intoxicating ‘Hot Summer Nights’
Boy meets boy — boy also meets girl — and mixed with jealousy, drugs and a sweltering Cape Cod summer in 1991, 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. This sexy, soapy male melodrama may be a little light on gritty realism, but it throbs with a mind-numbing sense of longing, and during the dog days of July, it goes down like cherry ice.
Timothée Chalamet stars as Daniel, no Danny, “because it sounds cool,” a depressed kid sent to while away the summer with his Aunt Barb on Cape Cod. 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 of this loserville 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, Hunter’s lascivious, whispered legend is matched only by that of his sister, McKayla (Maika Monroe), who has a wavy blond mane, skin like glass and a stare so seductive it hurts. Danny 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, Danny says he wants to go into business with Hunter, and once he gets a taste, he’s hooked. Danny 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 consigliere for a heavy-hitter who enlists the new partners to move product. Danny also falls into a secret romance with McKayla, drunk on forbidden fruit.
“Hot Summer Nights” skitters and shimmies pleasingly, and it’s clear that 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 heads spin with format swaps, most successfully with disposable camera snapshots that evoke the era.
There are so many of these 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 with narration by a local kid who breathlessly recounts every rumor and innuendo about Danny, Hunter and McKayla. It elevates these three to mythological status, but 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.
And don’t try to unpack the details of the flimsy drug story — the timeline doesn’t hold up to a shred of scrutiny. Though it gives the film high stakes and menace, it’s hardly about selling drugs. What it is about is seduction, longing, sexual anticipation and broken trust. And 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. Chalamet, skinny and doe-eyed, 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 Danny at the center, in love with both McKayla, his would-be girlfriend, and a bromance with 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. Although 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’
Rated: R, for drug content and language throughout, sexual references, and some strong violence
Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes
Playing: AMC Dine-In Sunset, West Hollywood
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