Presumably it was all the attention Timothée Chalamet got for “Call Me By Your Name” that induced A24 to disinter this earlier effort by first-time writer-director Elijah Bynum, a period piece set in the summer of 1991. The talented young actor plays a teen who gets involved in the drug trade—and romance—with dire results, for his character and for viewers. “Hot Summer Nights” is a throwback to the genre of kiddie noir that attracted some members of the so-called Brat Pack in the eighties—pictures like “Blue City” with Judd Nelson and “Out of Bounds” with Anthony Michael Hall. The idea’s no better now than it was then.
Chalamet plays, with greater intensity than the role really deserves, Daniel Middleton, who’s so devastated by the death of his father that his mother packs him off to stay with an aunt on Cape Cod for the summer. Neither wealthy enough to hang with the real summer people nor a townie, Daniel feels out of place until he’s virtually adopted by the local bad boy, a hunky fellow with the unlikely name of Hunter Strawberry (Alex Roe). Hunter is the chief purveyor of weed in town, and especially with the summer folk as customers, he has a substantial clientele.
Taking Danny, as he insists on calling him, under his wing after the kid hides some weed for him when a cop gets too close, Hunter teaches the teen the tricks of his low-tech trade and makes him a junior partner. Danny even takes a puff on his first reefer and immediately collapses in ecstasy. No wonder he becomes such an energetic salesman.
Danny’s apparent good fortune continues when, at the drive-in one night (it always seems to be showing “Terminator 2”), his car becomes the refuge of choice of beautiful McKayla (Maika Monroe), a girl with a bit of a reputation who’s left her current boyfriend’s car in a huff. She asks for—actually demands—a ride home, and Danny eagerly complies. Over time the two will develop a romantic connection, which causes somewhat of a problem, because McKayla’s surname is Strawberry, and her brother is a protective guy. No wonder they keep the relationship secret. As it happens, she also objects to her brother’s business operation, which means that Danny has to conceal his involvement in it from her.
His success in the trade leads Danny to think big, and his attempt to expand their territory—and their supply—leads to an arrangement with Dex (Emory Cohen), a hood who can provides lots more weed to push. Despite their increased profits, however, the boy isn’t satisfied: though he knows that Hunter is unconvinced and that Dex will be very displeased, he decides to expand their trade to include cocaine—which will take him out west for a meeting with drug lord Shep (William Fichtner). It does not turn out well, and a big finale involves guns, speeding cars and death, all against the backdrop of Hurricane Bob hitting the Cape. (What with this and “The Equalizer 2,” hurricanes seem to be a motif this month.)
But of course in this instance, the storm isn’t just a convenient backdrop: it’s a climactic meteorological metaphor for the melodramatic maelstrom that Bynum has been working to build up over the course of the movie’s overextended two hours. The novice filmmaker and his cohorts on both sides of the camera work hard to create a steamy atmosphere and a brooding sense of impending disaster. But though he draws sensitive performances from Chalamet and the rest of the cast—Monroe, Roe, and Thomas Jane as the policeman father of a girl (Maia Mitchell) Hunter takes up with in particular—and production designer Kay Lee and cinematographer Javier Julia help fashion a sultry mood, the movie becomes overall an ostentatiously stylized farrago of coming-of-age clichés and crime-movie tropes.
The dialogue is a significant drawback. Even at its best it’s humdrum, but too often the pulpishness is ludicrously overripe. Cohen, who’s done good work in the past, is totally defeated by the loopy lines he’s compelled to recite (and the trite characterization they reflect), and veteran Fichtner’s single scene, played in a drug-induced haze, is unintentionally hilarious. Even worse is the fact that the movie is drenched in what seems like omniscient voiceover narration spoken by a childish voice. The speaker is revealed at the close—he’s a neighborhood kid (Rawann Gracie, though the words are spoken by Shane Epstein Petrullo). Maybe the device is intended as a misguided homage to “Days of Heaven,” but it makes little sense here, especially since the identity of the boy comes entirely out of left field, and at the close his observations take a pretty tasteless turn for the me-too age.
The narration also points toward the wildly variable tone Bynum brings to his overwrought material. Apparently intent on using every device he’s even seen in a movie, he and editors Jeff Castelluccio, Tom Constantino and Dan Zimmerman indulge in frantic montages at the drop of a hat, but especially in the last act frequently slow things down to a crawl as characters engage in self-indulgent monologues about past secrets, often interrupted by quick inserts cutting back to earlier events. Then there are the weird “interview” excerpts with townspeople that are tossed into the mix toward the start to provide backstory. These are frankly inexplicable from any logical standpoint, and from a narrative perspective are simply lazy.
Bynum is equally extravagant in his musical choices. Much of the footage is slathered with pop songs from the sixties and seventies, though even here he opts for eclecticism: one of the parts of the hyperkinetic opening montage is accompanied by a bit from the finale of Schubert’s Third Symphony.
So “Hot Summer Nights” is of interest as a relatively early example of Chalamet’s undeniable talent, and he is in fact very good; unfortunately, the film itself is a soggy, meandering mess.