Writer-director Elijah Bynum makes his feature film debut with “Hot Summer Nights,” a melodramatic and ham-fisted mashup of beachside-summer-I-came-of-age romance and birth-of-a-weed-dealer drama.
But it stars The New DiCaprio, Oscar nominee Timothée Chalamet, and “It Follows” “It” girl Maika Monroe, so it’s worth a look, just for Next Gen acting value.
It’s a Hyaninis, Massachusetts story parked in 1991, which our very young bystander–narrator (mistake #1) relates as a seminal season — when grieving, anti-social toothpick Daniel Middleton (Chalamet) shows up to spend his summer with an elderly aunt.
Who does this kid, who lost his dad not long before, make his first beach friend? That would be Hunter (Alex Roe of “The Fifth Wave”), the drop-out turned mechanic who is also the town weed dealer and a local legend. The kid passes muster in a pinch, and he’s in with the mysterious Hunter.
“I heard he burned down an ice cream shop just for putting sprinkles on his cone,” a kid repeating his myth says.
“I heard he killed a man,” a chorus of others echoes.
Daniel becomes Hunter’s sidekick, an asthmatic who abruptly announces he wants to get into the weed business, too. Being young and smart, he makes Hunter think big. Of course that eventually gets the interest of someone tougher and further up the food chain (Emory Cohen).
But the real obstacle to this bromance in the making is the girl — the icy, confident and foul-mouthed beauty every boy “within 50 miles” covets — McKayla (Monroe). She imposes on Daniel for a ride, the way arrogant beauties learn to do at an early age, and he’s smitten.
Problem — she’s Hunter’s estranged “baby sistuh.” And “Stay away from her” is all he’s got to say about that.
Bynum weaves in a second forbidden love interest , a “bad-good girl” (Maia Mitchell) for Hunter, two guys who have to keep their new romances secret from some menacing male.
Meanwhile, this ridiculous drug trade thing is racing through a story arc mere weeks in length, with the lads taking on more and more trade, rolling in cash and somehow avoiding the attentions of the local cop who just knows that Hunter kid is “headed for Walpole” where the state prison is.
Bynum makes great use of Chalamet’s unaffected, natural manner on screen. He plays around with the whole androgynous thing which the kid showcased in “Call Me By Your Name.” The moment Daniel sees Hunter for the first time, he hears “I Don’t Want to Lose Your Love Tonight” in his head.
That’s not the way this is going, but a little tease (this was filmed before “Call Me By Your Name,” but the song might’ve been added later) never hurt anybody. It’s interesting to watch Chalamet play Daniel’s increased confidence around McKayla, thanks to his daring drug-dealing on the side. Confident, sure, but he’s still incompetent at wooing her.
Monroe is hyped as the sultry bombshell this time out, many of her scenes open with a backlit fix-the-camera-with-a-sexy/sleepy-eyed-stare to make us see Daniel’s overwhelming attraction. She’s a bad girl who tempts the rich boys, and even if Daniel can win her heart, he can’t tell her he knows her brother, or tell Hunter.
Those two are the stand-out players and the reasons to see this sometimes ludicrous (Daniel buys a Corvette with his drug money, and NOBODY — including the never-really-seen Aunt — notices?) melodrama. The threat of violence is all that disturbs the happy montage of lads loading up on loot as they grow their business, and the love story is so over-familiar as to be a genre unto itself — beach romances, “Summer Lovin,'” as they called it in “Grease.”
And aside from those two leads, the rest of the cast is a catalog of acting affectations. Check out the cool but a bit-much way the cop played by Thomas Jane is introduced — pulling over Daniel, his face hidden in classic “star entrance” fashion, kicking the ground with the toe of his shoe, running his fingers down the side of Daniel’s pre-Corvette Toyota wagon. Busy busy.
Watch Cohen’s man-with-muscle play with his huge stack of waffles at the “meeting” he drags Daniel and Hunter to by force. Fussy.
Yeah, James Dean got famous for loading scenes with tics and mannerisms, but they’re such attention-grabbers they always play as excessive in the hands of lesser acting mortals. “That’s an actor acting,” we say as we watch each rehearsed tic trotted out.
They’re not the reason “Hot Summer Nights” fails. Their affectations are just what you notice when the story is as contrived, melodramatic and unoriginal as this one.
MPAA Rating: R for drug content and language throughout, sexual references, and some strong violence
Credits: Written and directed by Elijah Bynum. An A24 release.
Running time: 1:47