‘Hot Summer Nights’ especially delivers but then overheats

“Hot Summer Nights” – Looking back at the 20th century, some years truly stand out, and 1929, 1945, 1963, 1976, and 1984 are some of the more notable ones.

Well, outside of the Hubble Telescope launch, the end of the Gulf War, Super Bowl XXV between the Buffalo Bills and New York Giants, and “Terminator 2: Judgment Day”, 1991 was not particularly special.   For writer/director Elijah Bynum, he landed on this year in his new coming-of-age comedy/drama, “Hot Summer Nights”.

Although his feature-film debut is packed with wonderful script-candy, odes to 90’s nostalgia, crafty adventure, and hidden secrets, it does not holistically gel.  The film is special in a lot of ways, but Bynum builds so many moving parts, the second and third acts feel disjointed and uneven.  The story falls apart a bit, but no moviegoers should walk away bored.

It’s June 1991, and Daniel (Timothee Chalamet) is bored, more like wallowing in self-pity and feeling a sense of loss.  His father recently passed away, and his mother (Jeanine Serralles) cannot cope watching Daniel sulk, so she banishes him to his Aunt Barb’s house in Hyannis, Mass. for the summer.  For a rail-thin teenager who doesn’t really know anyone, he’s most likely to remain invisible and skate through an uneventful summer.  So, surprise, surprise, when he stumbles into an unlikely friendship with Hunter Strawberry (Alex Roe), and they become more.  That’s right…drug-dealing partners!

Suddenly, a sense of previously-unknown danger enters Daniel’s world, and he – in turn – brings an expansionist business acumen to Hunter’s.  Rather than settling for selling dime bags of pot to summer tourists, Daniel throws the two into moving POUNDS of marijuana – up to 16 at a time – to local and big city (a.k.a. Boston) clients!

Add the prettiest girl in town, McKayla (Maika Monroe) – who is also known as “the biggest fox in 50 miles”  – and Daniel’s summer of drugs and girls (or girl) gives this kid plenty of reason to celebrate his new, three-month residency away from tears at home.

For anyone who grew up in 1991, “Hot Summer Nights” feels like trip back home to yesterdecade.  Bynum get the clothes, vibe and music – including The Outfield and David Bowie – exactly right and delves into friendships and potential romance, which are both not reachable by social media.  Their world is one where connections and happenstance occur through good and dumb luck, and secrets and deceit run in more common circles.

Coming off huge accolades with “Call Me by Your Name” (2017), Chalamet is the star of the picture, and although he performs admirably, Alex Roe really is the film’s big winner.  A bit misunderstood with a brooding exterior, Hunter earned a big reputation in Hyannis with plenty of rumors running rampant.   The locals say he burned down an ice cream parlor because the counter guy forgot his sprinkles, rode a motorcycle 180 mph…in the rain…without a helmet.  Oh, and he killed a man.  Supposedly.

Roe’s Hunter carries the most depth and complexity, and delivers the sensitive-boyfriend, James Dean-cool guy and dangerous-physicality personas throughout the movie and reveals each side when Byrum calls upon him.  Roe starred in the infinitely forgettable “Forever My Girl” (2018), but the young man could sing and play guitar in front of thousands of people with very little formal training in that film.  Roe has talent and could really shoot into big-time stardom.

Same goes for Byrum, but he pulls on too many story threads and others fall apart in a maze of plot points.  What happens to Daniel’s mom?  Why isn’t Aunt Barb ever looking after Daniel?  Hyannis isn’t that big, but Hunter never runs into his estranged sister?  What do  Daniel and Hunter do with all their money?  Why don’t we see Daniel and Hunter’s supplier more often?  Will Daniel find romance or not?  Will an impending hurricane possibly wash everything clean?

There’s a lot going on during June, July and August 1991 in this little, Cape Cod community, and although the said year is not particularly special, “Hot Summer Nights” proudly displays plenty of special flashes.

⭐⭐ 1/2   out of   ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Image and Trailer credits:  A24

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