A surreal summer romp through the early '90s.
On Amazon Prime | 2018 | R | 1h 47m
Genre: '90s nostalgia. Teen romance. A "fun and stylized thriller," according to Amazon (heavy on "stylized," light on "thriller").
Why I watched: Liz told me about this movie. All I really internalized from what she said was "Timothée Chalamet" and "wild summer movie," and that was enough to interest me. But I was positively delighted when, a few weeks later, I was browsing Amazon and saw even more to pique my interest. My feet were cold and I was in the mood for something fun, so Hot Summer Nights seemed perfect.
You might also like: For more Timothée and more summertime, luxuriate (preferably alone) in Call Me By Your Name, streaming on Starz. Lady Bird, also on Amazon, is another must-watch if you haven't seen it yet. For something silly and fun, watch Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp on Netflix.
I don't know if you've noticed, but...it's been cold lately. Like, really cold. And that's got me dreaming of the warm summers of my childhood. I spent (parts of) many of them in Nantucket and Cape Cod, and when I close my eyes and picture myself in a warm, happy place, that's where I am. Cue Hot Summer Nights, newly streaming on Amazon Prime. Set in June of 1991 (the month of my birth) in Cape Cod (hello), I couldn't resist. Short take: I really liked it. But the Cape Cod of Hot Summer Nights is not the Cape Cod of my dreams.
Teenaged Daniel Middleton (Timothée Chalamet) is shipped off to the Cape to spend the summer with his aunt, a local, after his father dies. He's not a "summer bird" (a rich visitor who merely vacations on the Cape every summer), but neither is he a "townie" (someone who lives there year round). He's out of place and feeling it—until, that is, he meets local teen drug dealer, bad boy, and heartthrob, Hunter (Alex Roe). Daniel gets high for the first time with Hunter, and before long he's helping him sell weed. Right away, business booms. It turns out Daniel is really, really good at selling drugs. He's also really, really bad at staying away from Hunter's sister, McKayla (Maika Monroe). Since Hunter forbade Daniel from dating his sister early on, you can imagine that when he finds out, things will get...messy. In fact, everything gets messy, because Daniel also decides he should start selling cocaine. Bad idea.
Daniel's motives for dealing aren't very clear. He's driven to make money, it seems, but what he wants or needs the money for isn't obvious. It's more like making money is just an antidote to boredom. Throughout the film, we learn a lot about Daniel's quirks and talents, but very little about his character—about who Daniel Middleton is. The plot is similarly uncertain, and I finished Hot Summer Nights feeling a bit unfulfilled by characters and story alike. This is a weakness of the movie, I think, but probably not an accident. The narrator—a young local boy whom we do not see until the end of the movie—says early on that Daniel Middleton changed that summer; no one knows why, maybe not even him. The truth is, many of us change in the course of a summer during our teen years; we don't always know why, and we don't always know it happened until later. And what we remember from those times is mostly emotional and impressionistic.
Vulture's Emily Yoshida says that the '90s nostalgia movies popping up are "more informed by #vibes than anything else, which can make for some incredibly muddled storytelling." But the #vibe of Hot Summer Nights is strong and purposeful and clear, and the thing is, maybe the vibe is the story. The characters move from drive-in theater to beach to convenience store to party to bedroom window, and back to drive-in. There's a fist fight and a first kiss, a mad dad and a dead kid. That's a story, right? And besides, the movie is vivid and colorful, and the pacing of the scenes is mesmerizing. Frames slow down and speed up in turn, making some scenes dreamy and luxurious, while others feel exciting and frenetic. Some moments—like when Daniel gets high for the first time at a party, or when he and McKayla sit outside her house that night after the drive-in—are like moments suspended in time. You feel like you're floating...until suddenly you feel overstimulated. The movie doesn't lock you into one extreme or the other; it moves along at a nice clip, alternating between different speeds. And you keep watching not necessarily because you want to know what happens next, but because you want to see what happens next.
The verdict? Between its captivating pacing, stylized sets, and strong sense of place, Hot Summer Nights is well worth a watch—especially for this '90s baby.