So what has the movies’ wade into ’90s nostalgia reaped so far? It’s about to hit its stride — Jonah Hill’s coming-of-age drama Mid90s hits the trend on the nose this fall, and even the MCU is getting in on the trend with next year’s Captain Marvel. But so far, the time period seems like it’s serving as more of a cocoon than a tool for hindsight. Maybe that’s a part of the arc of modern nostalgia runs; after all, there’s a large intention gap between Almost Famous and Anchorman, a political and cultural awareness that becomes more gimlet-eyed as the time period is explored. Right now, the ’90s are the coming-of-age era for the people who are in their 30s and 40s and are producing filmed entertainment and “telling their stories.” Those stories, drawing from preadolescent memories, are more informed by #vibes than anything else, which can make for some incredibly muddled storytelling.
Writer-director Elijah Bynum was a child during the 1991 Cape Cod summer during which Hot Summer Nights takes place, and the story is framed through an unseen Greek chorus of any number of little boys for whom its principal players are larger-than-life legends. This is a technique lifted straight from Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides (and Sofia Coppola’s subsequent adaptation of it), which is all well and good, except that there’s nothing as succinct or poetic about Hot Summer Nights, no clear idea of what it means to be a young boy that a story like this is passed down to. The story, in brief: Daniel (Timothée Chalamet) is an unhappy teen sent to live with relatives in Cape Cod for the summer, where he quickly meets and befriends Hunter (Alex Roe), the hottest, baddest townie pot dealer there ever was. Daniel begs his way into Alex’s business, and his reckless behavior pays off for both of them. Meanwhile, Daniel falls for Alex’s sister McKayla (Maika Monroe) the hottest, baddest girl there ever was, and whom Alex forbids him to date for reasons I’m still not clear about.
Of all the movies Hot Summer Nights flirts with being — like a raging-hormone, partner-swapping teen at the beach — Bynum seems most engaged in the small-time marijuana mogul story line, with all its hazy bravado and mostly PG-rated scandalousness. That stuff is passably fun, and has momentum for a while. But the friendship between Daniel and Alex is poorly defined, never really exploiting their differences in experience and worldview. Why is gawky interloper Daniel so anxious to get into the big leagues? What does chill dreamboat Hunter get out of their friendship? These questions are posed but quickly forgotten. Worse, the relationship between Daniel and McKayla is disastrously incoherent, falling back on empty hot-sad-girl cliché when it can’t come up with any stakes or chemistry. No indie-vetted young actress working today seems more available to embody the uncomplicated fantasies of young men than Monroe, who made her breakthrough with It Follows and still hasn’t been given an actual human character to inhabit. Bynum has her sucking on lollipops and delivering smoldering bedroom eyes right into the camera, but never gets around to giving her anything substantial to say or do. Her most pivotal dramatic moment is when she reveals to Daniel that she’s a virgin, but it’s more a dramatic moment of relief for Daniel, who figured she wasn’t and can now have sex with her without feeling emasculated.
Hot Summer Nights’ titles come up blurry and neon-pink, like the titles on a well-worn soft-core VHS cassette, and you can tell it wants to feel like a story replayed so many times that it becomes hazy: pure emotion and color and memory. But one can’t imagine a story this scattered being replayed by anyone, much less sugar-high tween boys on summer vacation. As it cliff dives, unprompted, into reheated cocaine-nightmare territory done better by any number of 1990s ’70s nostalgia films before it, it not only ceases to be fun, but stops pretending it has any vision for where its lead characters should go. Falling into the same trap as many nostalgia pieces before it, it stops being about a lived time or place, and seems content to just be about other movies.