VOD Releases: Cruel Summer (2018) - Reviewed

Danny Evans (Richard Pawulski) is an autistic teenager going on a solo camping trip. Nick (Danny Miller) is a very angry young man whose girlfriend has just broken up with him. They are on a tragic collision course in Cruel Summer, a drama based on true events that tells its sad story without any real insight into the people involved or why it took place. Nothing in the movie really explains why directors Phillip Escott and Craig Newman thought it needed to be made. What happens is violent and senseless and the movie leaves it that way, for better or worse. ​

As the film opens, Danny is preparing to go to the woods on an overnight camping trip under the watchful eyes of his proud and concerned parents. Meanwhile, Nick just got dumped by his girlfriend and goes over to his friend Julia’s house to vent. Julia (Natalie Martin) clearly likes Nick and tries to get him past his breakup by telling him that his ex was a slut who had sex with Danny. That further enrages Nick into wanting to confront Danny. Nick and Julia then tell their friend Calvin (Reece Douglas) that Danny is a notorious pedophile and they need to teach him a lesson. The three set off to confront the unsuspecting Danny. ​

Cruel Summer goes back and forth between Danny in the woods and Nick, Julia and Calvin getting drunk and looking for Danny. The confrontation is inevitable, as is the outcome because it is teased during a fragmented flash-forward in the opening moments of the movie. Since Danny is not really doing much, the focus is mainly on the other three as they slowly make their way toward Danny. This becomes problematic because there is not much to any of them. Nick is a bully, seething with rage. Julia is a misguided girl trying to impress Nick by going along with his plan. And Calvin is easily pressured into helping by the intense Nick. ​

I had a hard time getting involved in all of this because I did not really understand who any of these people were or what their relationships were. It was difficult for me to understand how and why Calvin, and especially Julia, followed Nick to the woods. Calvin is misled, maybe a little too easily, but he does not know the truth when he agrees to join his friends. Julia not only knows the truth, she helps Nick trick Calvin into coming along. And I have no idea why she did that. ​

I understand that, in life, some things are senseless and preventable. And Cruel Summer is based on a real story. But, by reducing their characters to stereotypes with only one trait each, Escott and Newman blunted much of the impact of the story. I am honestly not sure what I am supposed to take away from this. Peer pressure is dangerous, teenagers sometimes struggle to deal with complex emotional situations and people need to be careful with spreading rumors. All of those things are on display here, but none of it really has meaning. 

It is a shame because Cruel Summer is a very well made film. The scenery is beautiful, the performances are strong and the pacing convincingly conveys the laziness, boredom and hopelessness that could engender such an act. But it does not add up to much. 

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-Ben Pivoz