Set on Cape Cod during the sizzling summer of 1991 – and on the cusp of Hurricane Bob’s arrival – Hot Summer Nights features breakout star Timothee Chalamet as Daniel, a teen who’s been sent by his widowed mom to spend the season on Cape Cod with his Aunt Barb (Rebecca Koon) before starting college in the fall. A premise like this could go any number of ways: comedy, romance, crime drama, sexual coming-of-ager … name your overworked genre. In a cover-all-your-bets move, debuting director Elijah Bynum makes the risky decision to send his script in all those directions, often pinging them into the air with no idea where they’ll land. The film has a narrator – a 13-year-old boy (voiced by Shane Epstein Petrullo) – who plays no other role in the film. Don’t look for any real help there.
The result is chaotic, but never lacking in energy – and the cast is up for anything. Chalamet, who shot the film just before his Oscar-nominated turn in Call Me By Your Name, moves his character from despondency over his dad’s recent death to a new life as a weed dealer, one with the confidence to fake the cool he hasn’t earned. The impetus for this change in a kid who finds himself caught between the townies and summer birds is Hunter Strawberry (Alex Roe), a bad-boy pusher who has cut out his own small-time slice of this Massachusetts tourist mecca. His swagger makes him the object of Daniel’s hero worship, though Hunter doesn’t do much more than sell dime-bags to preppies. It’s the new kid in town who encourages his new partner in crime to think bigger. Everything seems less-than-volatile until Daniel’s starts dating his friend’s hot sister, McKayla (Maika Monroe of It Follows). It seems sis is off limits; meanwhile, she is sending out distress signals about her brother. Daniel ignores the advice of both siblings. Bad move.
The film works best when Bynum is busy laying in the atmosphere, despite the film being shot in Atlanta instead of the Cape. The soundtrack is loaded with period riffs (Bowie, Roxette, Suicide) to get everyone’s mojo going. Roe plays Hunter like a grenade ready to blow, and Chalamet is strikingly effective just by letting his character’s growing pains play out against a backdrop ripe with possibilities. One scene in which McKayla licks his lollipop (for real, not metaphorically) is deliciously flirty.
But the trouble starts when everything shifts into the danger zone of drug warfare. Hunter and Daniel must cope with other dealers, like little fish Emory Cohen and bigger, more troublesome fish William Fichtner. Bynum is not above sampling freely from Boogie Nights – and GoodFellas and The Virgin Suicides and Adventureland and … well, you get the point. All too quickly, Hot Summer Nights starts reminding you other, better films it can’t live up to. And as if that omniscient narrator jabbering on about minor points wasn’t bad enough, the characters we do see have an annoying tendency to start delivering long monologues explaining their feelings instead of just, you know, showing them. It’s all too much to salvage, even for a young actor with extraordinary gifts like Chalamet. What’s left is a movie that never pays off on its promising potential, a summer squall instead of the dramatic perfect storm it so desperately wants to be.