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'Hot Summer Nights' Loves The '90s, But Not Its Main Character

Daniel (Timothée Chalamet) doesn't get very far, though he does have a car, in <em>Hot Summer Nights</em>.
Daniel (Timothée Chalamet) doesn't get very far, though he does have a car, in Hot Summer Nights.

The only solid insight to be gleaned from Hot Summer Nights, a nostalgia-soaked coming-of-age drama set in 1991 Cape Cod, is learning the DVDs that doubtlessly line the shelves of its writer-director, Elijah Bynum: Goodfellas, American Graffiti, Boogie Nights, The Sandlot, and perhaps the complete Wonder Years box set, to name a few.

Other movies turn up to mark the time — The Naked Gun 2 1/2, City Slickers, and The Rocketeer appear together on a drive-in marquee, and Terminator 2: Judgment Day is an era-defining event — but its sense of the period is as scattershot as its influences. There's the residue of '80s fashion, with its crimps and scrunchies and high-riding Guess jeans, a pot-dealing greaser who looks like a character from S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders, and a soundtrack that dips curiously in early-to-mid '70s cuts like Harry Nilsson's "Early in the Morning" and The Modern Lovers' "Hospital."

It should be said that Bynum has excellent taste, but his debut feature suffers from a crisis of identity that mirrors that of his hero, a confused teenager who ambles his way into serious trouble. Both have a fatal absence of confidence that leads them to latch onto more assured influences, in the faint hope that they'll offer some direction. In fact, Hot Summer Nights is so self-effacing that the wall-to-wall voiceover narration is handled by a kid who only appears on screen once yet presumably is the one coming-of-age here, simply by virtue of witnessing this story unfold from afar.

"Something changed inside Daniel Middleton that summer," intones the narrator, and The Byrds' "Turn! Turn! Turn!" might as well kick in on the soundtrack. Played by Timothée Chalamet, on the heels of his breakthrough role in Call Me By Your Nameand his turn as everyone's first, bad boyfriend in Lady Bird, Daniel arrives in Cape Cod as a young man between worlds — not wealthy enough to be one of the "summer birds" that floods the coast between Memorial Day and Labor Day, but not a townie like the more permanent residents. He's been sent to Cape Cod to work through his grief over his father's recent death, but he's socially ill-at-ease, which plagues him at parties and keeps him from finding new friends.

By sheer happenstance, Daniel meets Hunter Strawberry (Alex Roe), the local pot-dealing bad boy, and falls into a working relationship that blossoms into an unstable friendship. Since Hunter's reputation precedes him, Daniel makes the persuasive argument that he would be a less conspicuous drug dealer, and the two quickly grow the business under the noses of local police. Hunter's sole proviso is that Daniel cannot date his sister McKayla (Maika Monroe), the town's prime lust object, so of course that's exactly what he ends up doing. As if that situation weren't perilous enough for him, he also decides to expand into the cocaine trade, in defiance of their menacing big-city supplier. And, oh yeah: This is the same summer that Hurricane Bob ravaged the New England coast, just in time to give this impending disaster a visual metaphor.

The Strawberry siblings are stereotypes from before their time — Hunter the sensitive James Dean wannabe with rolled-up t-shirt sleeves and a cigarette dangling from his highly kissable lips, McKayla a big-haired Tawny Kitaen who's as intoxicating as she is unattainable. Daniel isn't a type, but mostly because he's such a passive presence at the center of the story, weakly acquiescing to the Strawberrys' will. In his one show of initiative, his overtures into the cocaine business lands him in the middle of the Alfred Molina scene in Boogie Nights, only with William Fichtner in the Molina role and a topless junkie pianist replacing the guy throwing firecrackers.

In Call Me By Your Name, Chalamet's openness leads him on a touching road to self-discovery, but as Daniel, he's no less a stranger to us (and to himself) at the end of the film as he is at the beginning. Hot Summer Nights will surely be the footnote to a great career — ditto Monroe, who secured her star-of-tomorrow status with It Follows— but it's also a warning to future casting agents and filmmakers. Chalamet is a wonderful canvas for expressing emotion, but don't forget to pick up the brush.

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Scott Tobias is the film editor of The A.V. Club, the arts and entertainment section of The Onion, where he's worked as a staff writer for over a decade. His reviews have also appeared in Time Out New York, City Pages, The Village Voice, The Nashville Scene, and The Hollywood Reporter. Along with other members of the A.V. Club staff, he co-authored the 2002 interview anthology The Tenacity Of the Cockroach and the new book Inventory, a collection of pop-culture lists.