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‘Hot Summer Nights’ glows with 90s nostalgia if little else

Andy Moser, Features Editor

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Every town has its stories. In Cape Cod, the myths, like the people who reside there over the summer, are filthy stinking rich.

Such is the basis for writer/director Elijah Bynum’s Hot Summer Nights, a valiant and stylish attempt to flesh out one particular 90s rumor about an awkward teenage boy named Daniel (Timothée Chalamet) who quickly became one of the most prominent drug dealers in the entire region, so the story goes anyway.

Daniel’s father is dead, and his relationship with his mother (Jeanine Serralles) is dysfunctional at best. To get him off her back, she sends him to live with his aunt (Rebecca Koon) in Cape Cod for the summer. There, he’s immediately recognized as a newbie. His long-sleeve striped shirts don’t exactly blend in with the summery short-sleeves and tank tops of Cape culture. When he’s not working the register at the local convenience store, he meanders around at parties with his hands in his pockets trying to seem unbothered by the fact that nobody is talking to him.

Opportunity for upward social mobility comes knocking one day at work when the coolest kid in town, Hunter (Alex Roe), rushes in with a police officer hot on his tail. He’s got weed, and he needs a place to hide it. Daniel, whose desire for friendship and social status outweighs his fear of jail time, jams the dime bag into the cash register. A suspicious officer walks in, but can’t find what he’s looking for. The risk pays off for Daniel, and he’s got his foot in the door.

It turns out Hunter is a prevalent dealer, and Daniel works his way into the modestly sized business. But while Hunter is content selling dime bags to rich kids, Daniel wants to expand the operation into dangerous territory that isn’t kind to greedy, dumb teenagers.

In the midst of all this, Daniel falls for Hunter’s sister McKayla, Cape Cod’s own Regina George played with a pinpoint effortlessness by Maika Monroe. Like her brother, she’s impossibly cool and difficult to read. And everybody wants to know her.

Unfortunately for Daniel, Hunter takes the overprotective brother archetype to extremes. Daniel quickly finds himself having to keep a number of secrets that could destroy him, his newfound social status, his relationship with McKayla or all of the above.

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Bynum, looking to give solid ground to a myth, walks a thin line between bringing us close enough to the characters to care about them and keeping us far enough away to retain that air of mystery. He often teeters to the latter, and it can feel like we really don’t know enough about who these kids are to really get invested in their actions. We have this mashup of a coming-of-age story mixed with a crime thriller, with the former being the more compelling element.

Daniel’s ventures into the drug world are only temporarily rousing. It’s him trying to put the pieces of himself together that has the power to linger afterward, but Bynum doesn’t explore that in depth. That very well could be by design, but it’s ineffective nevertheless.

What Bynum absolutely nails about the whole thing, though, is that perfect hazy summer aesthetic. He paints a beautifully encompassing picture of drive-in movie theaters and neon-colored carnival lights gleaming with a nostalgia just as ethereal as the title suggests. Chalamet and Monroe thrive in their environment and commit themselves wholly to their characters’ fleeting romance.

If Hot Summer Nights can’t quite leave that lasting impression it wants to, Bynum ensures that it’s at least a dreamy place to be in for a little while. Still, chances are you’ll be ready to leave by the time the credits role.

Sails: 2.5/5

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‘Hot Summer Nights’ glows with 90s nostalgia if little else