Genre: Coming-of-age drama
Length: 120 minutes
Director: Elijah Bynum
Writer: Elijah Bynum
Cast: Timothee Chalamet, Maika Monroe, Alex Roe, Maia Mitchell, Thomas Jane, William Fichtner
Review: Connie Wilson
On Monday, March 13th, 2017, at SXSW, Imperative Entertainment World Premiered first-time writer/director Elijah Bynum’s coming-of-age film “Hot Summer Nights.” It played to a packed house at the Paramount Theater with all major stars in attendance.
Set in 1991 Cape Cod (really filmed in Atlanta, Georgia) , “Hot Summer Nights” stars Timothée Chalamet (“Call Me By Your Name,” “Interstellar”), Maika Monroe (“It Follows,” “Independence Day 2”), Alex Roe (“The 5th Wave,” “Rings”) and Maia Mitchell (“The Fosters), with appearances by Emory Cohen (“Brooklyn, “The Place Beyond the Pines”), Thomas Jane (“Hung,” “The Punisher”) and William Fichtner (“The Dark Knight,” “Armageddon”).
The film is told through the point-of-view of Daniel Middleton, a lonely and troubled teen-ager despondent over the death of his father. In a voice-over from a minor character who is not well identified, we learn, “This all happened a while back in the town I’m from.”
Daniel’s mother sends him away to his Aunt’s to spend the summer of 1991 in Cape Cod. Young Daniel finds himself friendless in Hyannis, Massachusetts at first.
Daniel’s not really a “townie” and he’s not one of the rich kids visiting for the summer. According to the voice-over, “Something changed inside of Daniel Middleton the summer he turned 13.” Thirteen seemed too young for the plot. If Daniel is there only for a summer, how is he able to drive a hot car throughout the film, including in the opening car crash scene?
Daniel drifts into a friendship with the classic James Dean style bad boy in town, a blonde hunk with the unfortunate character name Hunter Strawberry (Alex Roe). Hunter is the stereotypical screw-up. He has been kicked out of high school and also was kicked out of the house by his widowed father. Now he hangs around a garage working on cars and selling marijuana to tourists and locals on the side; he also has an uncontrollably violent side. Daniel throws in with him with a vengeance in all of his endeavors.
Hunter’s sister Michaela (Maika Monroe) is angry with Hunter for not giving up selling pot; it their mother’s one request of her son during her final illness. Daniel becomes allied with the cool stud Hunter when he helps him out by hiding some weed that Hunter has on his person while being stalked by local cop Sergeant Frank Calhoun. Hunter takes up with Frank’s daughter Amy, which is certain to cause problems for Amy at home if her parents find out.
Meanwhile, Daniel unwisely finds himself irresistibly drawn to the brooding Michaela. Hunter makes it clear that he is overly protective of his younger sibling and forbids Daniel to date her. That, of course, soon goes out the window, but the pair sneak around and have numerous make-out sessions in Daniel’s car, bought with drug money proceeds.
Director Bynum shared with the audience, after the film, that the plot was one he heard while in college. Said Bynum, “I’m from Massachusetts, but from a different part of the state. The story came from a couple of kids I knew in college. They talked about two drug dealers who, as their business grew, their friendship also grew, and then both disappeared. I was always intrigued by that.”
The principal actors all did a good job in their roles, especially the two male leads. The cinematography by Javier Julia was innovative and exciting. (Julia also worked in actual film footage from Hurricane Bob, a key plot element.)
Those in charge of the music (Will Bates and Liz Gallagher) also did a good job, using songs like David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” and “All the Young Dudes” among others from the era.
The plot has problems. For one thing, early on the lead character’s age (Daniel) is set at thirteen. Again, if Daniel is only thirteen, how can he spend most of the movie driving? (The opening scene is a car crash with Daniel at the wheel.) And, too, wouldn’t a young boy with such an extremely hot car be looked upon with suspicion? He has obviously purchased the car with ill-gotten gains, as his Aunt Barb is not wealthy, and neither is he. If this detail didn’t attract the attention of the local police, who already suspect Hunter of dealing and now see him with Daniel constantly, it would be surprising. And, for that matter, girlfriend Michaela might have asked, “How do you afford this hot car?” (That would have been a good scripted conversation for the two to have that would have led to Michaela finding out that her boyfriend and her brother are in cahoots.)
Also unbelievable is the idea that the young lovers (Daniel and Michaela) can avoid being “found out” by her brother (Hunter). This is a small town and the idea that Michaela would not know that her brother had gone into business selling pot with her new boyfriend was implausible. Their romance would have come to Hunter’s attention much earlier. The discovery of Hunter’s interest in Amy also didn’t elicit exactly the kind of scene between Amy’s policeman father (Thomas Jane) and Hunter (Alex Roe) that you’d expect.
And then there’s the ending. It was never quite clear who was narrating the film (young person at the window) and the ending is almost as bad as the themes my junior high school students used to turn in where the ending was always, “And then he woke up and it was all a dream.” (Ugh)
On the positive side, it’s a good first directorial effort, with excellent music, good acting and fine cinematography and the newcomers in the cast are all promising. For me, Alex Roe was the break-out star of the piece, in a James Dean-ish fashion, but all four of the principals really turned in good work. It’s unfortunate that more thought did not go into the huge holes in the plot that anyone paying attention would immediately pick up on. It almost seemed, to me, as though the “beta” readers that novelists use (and, presumably, screenwriters do, as well) didn’t do their job very well. They let a lot of gaffes get through to this final product.
I’d give the film, overall, an “A” for effort and a low “B-/C+” for execution.