Cruel Summer, a film based on a tragically wrongheaded crime, is a knockoff of Larry Clark’s Bully. I’m fine with that; following that model isn’t necessarily problematic.
Bully is an uncomfortable, nauseating, and shocking film that only the director of Kids (1995) could’ve made. The 2001 controversial drama based on the murder of South Florida teen Bobby Kent may have since become awash in obscurity, but it’s a brilliant, button-pushing exposé about disturbed, troubled youth. It was much more than simply portraying the events and abandoning the audience, which is exactly what Phillip Escott and Craig Newman do in their feature filmmaking debut, Cruel Summer.
Cruel Summer tells the story of an autistic teenager, Danny (Richard Pawulski), who goes camping for independence and personal gain. However, his trip is crashed by a gang of antagonizing teens led by Nicholas (Danny Miller), who are hellbent for revenge upon hearing rumours about alleged terrible things Danny has done. In that group is Julia (Natalie Martins), the only other person besides Danny who knows he’s innocent.
Instead of linking its true story to any meaningful ideas, Cruel Summer builds gross anticipation towards the confusing confrontation, and then shows movie goers the aftermath. It’s a film made up of dramatizations, longing for more substance. These scenes would work well in a biographical doc, juxtaposed by “talking heads” of those who knew the subjects, followed by interviews with forensic experts that could give viewers psychological context. Revising this movie to fit that more effective approach wouldn’t have been such a stretch for co-director/co-writer Escott, a previous producer on multiple documentary shorts.
Instead, Cruel Summer sits in the open with its ugliness exposed; asking to be perceived as a thriller or – worse – torture porn horror. Pawulski, as the unfortunate victim, provides the film’s only achievement – one of the best portrayals of a developmental disorder I’ve seen in years.
Cruel Summer is uncomfortable, nauseating, and shocking, but not in any intelligent ways.
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Addison Wylie: @AddisonWylie