Cruel Summer

The ability to independently choose based on one’s own needs, wants, and thoughts, commonly referred to as free will, is a trait every human being is born having. When writing a movie in which half of the main characters are actively ignoring their sense of agency to help one person commit an act of evil, that domineering person needs to come across as charismatic, or at least come across as multifaceted. The audience needs to understand why these people would actively lie to other friends for that person, even when the jig was up, or what about he/she makes the people want to help in the vile acts at hand. Emile Hirsch’s character from the underrated Alpha Dog is the sort of character necessary for the audience to believe people would disregard their self-interests for him. He is commanding, enticing, can make you feel like a million bucks, and make you cry when you disappoint him.

“…tension comes from seeing if Danny can escape…”

The new thriller Cruel Summer, based on a real-life murder, fails in this regard. Recently dumped Nicholas (Danny Miller) discovers that his ex-girlfriend wasn’t a virgin, as he was led to believe, and sets about to make Danny (Richard Pawulski), the other person, pay. He convinces Julia (Natalie Martins) to help, and they both lie to their friend Calvin (Reece Douglas) about the reason they are going to beat up this autistic kid. The movie then intercuts between Danny on a camping trip in the nearby woods and the three friends searching for him. Once found, the tension comes from seeing if Danny can escape, if Calvin will figure out the truth and if Julia will ever be her own person.

Cruel Summer is a frustrating watch precisely because of the answer to the last one. Julia is not afforded a single thought or action that is her own for the entire runtime. This confuses the viewer as Nicholas is just an angry mass of swears, pent-up rage, and nothing else at all. There is not another trait to this character. Thus, it is impossible for the audience to understand what draws the other two to Nicholas, as he is never interested in them, not even duplicitously, nor does he have the charm or smooth talking skills to help make his twisted desires sound prettier than they are. And if Nicholas is just anger, Julia is far less than that, as she is only there to be his sounding board and encourage his worst instincts.

“…Julia is not afforded a single thought or action that is her own for the entire runtime…”

Mind you, none of that is the fault of the young actors in the roles, as they are quite good. The three friends do share chemistry and Pawulski does terrific work as the autistic Danny, turning him into more than a mere caricature. The issue is with Phillip Escott and Craig Newman’s screenplay, as it doesn’t delve into the characters whatsoever. The movie is merely content to present the events leading up to the murder, without giving much consideration as to who these people were before this or how their upbringing or current social situation led them to their choices.

All is not lost though, as Escott and Newman, prove to be wonderfully gifted directors. Lucas Tucknott’s cinematography is sumptuous and adds beauty to the heinous crime committed against its backdrop. The editing, by Phillip Escott, creates several intense moments and balances the interwoven stories, before they merge, with grace and ease. The movie moves at a nice pace and is never dull.

Murky characterizations and an over-fixation on just the facts and events hinder Cruel Summer from achieving its full potential. Good acting, amazing editing, and stellar camerawork make the movie worth watching once, but there will not be a reason to return to it anytime soon.

Cruel Summer (2018) Directed by Phillip Escott, Craig Newman. Written by Phillip Escott, Craig Newman. Starring Danny Miller, Reece Douglas, Natalie Martins, Richard Pawluski.

Grade: C

Pull Quotes-
“…the editing creates several intense moments…”
“…merely content to present the events…”
“…Julia is not afforded a single thought or action that is her own for the entire runtime…”

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