Review: ‘Hot Summer Nights’ Is Trite, Sexist Opportunism

Posted July 26, 2018 5:44 p.m. EDT

There’s a scene in the 2013 film “Inside Llewyn Davis” in which the title character, a struggling folk singer in early-1960s New York, meets a younger musician who has been making waves. This other guy is well organized, polite and an engaging performer who can easily get a coffeehouse audience to sing along with him. During one such show, a flabbergasted Llewyn asks his friend, who admires this fellow, “Does he have a higher function?”

That unkind question occurred to me as I watched “Hot Summer Nights,” written and directed by Elijah Bynum, who is making his feature debut. The movie opens during a hurricane, with a teenager named Daniel driving dangerously through the wind and rain in a snazzy sports car. Daniel, played by Timothée Chalamet (whose cachet is unlikely to be enhanced by the Shia LaBeouf riffs he reproduces here), is in trouble. After another car slams into his, the movie, set in the early 1990s, goes back several months, to the beginning of the summer.

At that time, Daniel, a city kid unnerved by his father’s death, is sent to Hyannis, Massachusetts, by his even more unnerved mother. A colorful montage of various adolescents from different social strata establishes the beach town’s hierarchies. Neither townie nor rich summer kid, the skinny but cocky Daniel notices two fellow teens: the hunky drug dealer and local legend, Hunter (Alex Roe), and the preternaturally attractive tough girl, McKayla (Maika Monroe).

Daniel wants what Hunter has, cash to throw around. And he just plain wants McKayla. So does every other boy in town, says the movie’s unnamed narrator, who’s looking back from a distance of years but speaking as his teenage self. As a demonstration, he regales us with a scene in which a fellow grabs McKayla’s recently discarded chewing gum from the underside of the shelf below a public phone and puts it in his mouth.

Not a lot of people watch Terrence Malick’s “Days of Heaven” and ask why Linda, its young narrator, speaks as the kid she was during the times she’s recounting. It is poetic license that has been carefully applied for, and we accept it. With the trite “Hot Summer Nights,” not so much. Admittedly, a teenager describing McKayla in the drooling terms used here is ostensibly more forgivable and (arguably) less creepy than a grown man would be, uttering the same superlatives. Still, the episode and the movie’s attitude toward McKayla are ickily sexist.

As Daniel pursues his ambitions in romance and illegal commerce — complicated by Hunter’s being McKayla’s estranged brother — the movie nods to other directors. It frantically waves to Wes Anderson (the camera work in the Hyannis social-whirl scenes) and to Paul Thomas Anderson (the drug-deal-gone-wrong and the vintage Can song featured on the soundtrack of that director’s “Inherent Vice”). The influence of the Coen brothers, who made “Llewyn Davis,” is strong, too.

Perhaps this picture’s higher function is to be a calling card. But I don’t know what a calling-card project that demonstrates that its maker can semi-successfully mimic artistically vital but uncommercial directors is supposed to prove. For me, it mostly proved a waste of time.

Additional Information:

“Hot Summer Nights”

Rated R for language, drug use, sexuality, the usual adolescent (in every sense of the word) stuff. Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes.