With a single indelible performance in last year’s peach-defiling swoon Call Me By Your Name, Timothée Chalamet became the kind of instant star awards-show closeups and internet memes are made for; the anointed doe-eyed princeling of indie cinema.
Hot Summer Nights was actually shot months before Call Me’s release, but he’s still the best reason to see debut writer-director Elijah Bynum’s stylized drama — essentially a humid, fantastically soundtracked pile of screenwriting clichés about a disaffected teen discovering sex, drugs, and trouble one Cape Cod summer circa 1991.
Chalamet’s Daniel is still mourning the death of his father, mostly by sitting around in his underwear listening to Linda Ronstadt and setting things on fire, when his hapless mother decides to send him away to live with his aunt on the Cape. (A very elusive aunt; she shows up in roughly three seconds of film, and is promptly never seen again). The famed Massachusetts beach colony at high season is a celebration of class division and pure hedonism, all sailboats and sunburns, khakis and cocaine.
Daniel drifts through it mostly unseen, neither a townie nor a “summer bird,” until he meets the heroically named Hunter Strawberry (Alex Roe), local drug dealer and dime-store James Dean. Everything about Hunter is cool and forbidding, though that doesn’t stop him, inexplicably, from taking Daniel — who suddenly becomes a fount of bravado and bad ideas — under his wing, and eventually making him a full partner in his life of low-grade crime.
But hark, complications! Hunter’s sister McKayla (It Follows’ Maika Monroe) also happens to be the prettiest girl in all the Cod, a teenage siren Daniel tumbles for the minute he finds her dumping her rich-bohunk boyfriend of the moment at the local drive-in. And he keeps falling, even as the weed business begins expanding dangerously into regional gangster territory.
Bynum shoots it all in high pop-pastiche style, with a near-constant barrage of neon freeze frames, slow-pan party shots, and romantic montages set to an eclectic, decade-spanning soundtrack (Tarzan Boy, David Bowie, Roxette, Suicide). He gives the boilerplate story his own earnest energy, and manages to fit in featured cameos from veteran actors like Thomas Jane and William Fichtner. (Brooklyn star Emory Cohen also shows up briefly to chew diner waffles and scenery, with extra butter.)
It’s clear Bynum is a cinephile; nearly every setup recalls some other classic movie moment, from Rebel Without a Cause to Virgin Suicides to Boogie Nights. Whether he’s purposefully making his own sort of tribute to them all or merely churning out a secondhand remix is hard to say. Either way, Summer sweats on, dutifully fulfilling a destiny telegraphed from the start. C+