Firstly, I’d just like to say thank you to Katie Armstrong of October Coast PR for allowing me access to an online screener of the Horror/Thriller film “Cruel Summer”, Co-Written and Directed by Phillip Escott and Craig Newman. Cruel Summer centers around an adventurous autistic boy-scout type named Danny (played by Richard Pawulski) who decides to go camping alone by a secluded lake in order to earn his latest badge. What Danny doesn’t know is that he’ll soon be pursued by the temperamental and aggressive, Nicholas (Danny Miller) and two of his friends, Julia (played by Natalie Martins) and Calvin (Reece Douglas), in response to a supposed encounter he’d previously had with Nicholas’s now, ex-girlfriend. As the three close in on Danny, a simple camping trip turns into a nightmare for this innocent young man. The film also stars Gary Knowles and Grace Dixon.
The particular brand of dark material at the forefront of Cruel Summer can often be tricky to handle, even with it falling under the horror genre and the wiggle room that might come with that. We’ve seen it done exceptionally well in similar films to come out of the UK and Wales, like “Eden Lake” and the lesser known, “A Way Of Life” and Cruel Summer does it well too, despite the antagonists lacking some much-needed character arc. Ultimately I feel like Cruel Summer is a cautionary tale about how toxic the combination of boredom, peer pressure and emotionally fueled angst can be for not only the disenfranchised youth, but anyone for that matter. The choices made by these characters are spur of the moment and driven by a combination of immature emotional responses, none of which are grounded in any reality. All seemingly harmless, but in due time grandiose, as events escalate. Nicholas, Julia and Calvin have a slow and deliberate approach to their end goal and that’s where the film draws most of its tension from. I expected heavy visuals and intense interactions but I was pleased to find at the very least, a glimmer of hope and some depiction of an internal struggle in the latter part of the film. DP, Lucas Tucknott appears to have shot most of the film with a steadicam and that approach works particularly well for this type of setting.
The film opens with some scene-setting establishing shots that include a calm lake and a heavily wooded and green forest. Everything is well framed, there’s a couple of stylish tracking sequences and overhead shots as we see Danny packing all of the essentials for his camping trip. Cruel Summer’s audio track is clean and the films main musical theme is made up of a nice mix of somber violin, cello and piano. The warm synth sounds later on are a contrast to the threat level that builds over the course of the speedy 75 minute run time. The pressure cooker that is this trio of youngins, erupts in the most violent of fashions and despite the fact that you know it’s coming you’re still caught off guard. All four performances are top-notch, but it’s Douglas as the somewhat conflicted Calvin who bares it all and delivers some of the best emotional outpourings in the film. The interactions between Miller and Martins are natural and all of the dialogue has a great flow on effect, made all the more impressive considering much of it was improvised (according to what I’ve read). Cruel Summer is just Richard’s second film and playing a boy suffering this kind of affliction couldn’t have been easy and he does it extremely well. As I mentioned before, the violence sneaks up on you in the most slow burn and sadistic of ways, making for an extremely tough watch in the third act. There’s practical blood and gore on display and it feels all too real.
The only technical gripe is that some of the shots consist of momentary lapses in focus, probably due to the handheld presentation. Cruel Summer claims to be inspired by real events, but I’m not sure how many of the specifics were true to life because I found it difficult to believe that Danny’s parents would allow him to camp overnight on his own, given his disability. Though one might argue that you can’t shelter your children forever and getting out in the big wide world is where they learn and grow, I guess I just assumed an adult would accompany him. It’s not technically a flaw in the film but I can’t fathom the level of stupidity shown by all three of the main characters, but particularly Julia, who I actually despised. She was a pitiful excuse for a human being and it actually angered me, though not in the same way as “Daryl”, who was simply an unwatchable character from the similarly themed “Super Dark Times”, a poor film responsible for giving life to the most obnoxious character that’s ever been committed to screen. Here, Julia’s actually worse than Nicholas because she has a chance to do something about the situation. Now I know you can’t help who you like but here’s this brash, asinine punk who treats her like total crap, and yet for some unbeknownst reason she remains infatuated with him. At one stage she even says to Calvin, “We will do whatever he wants”…. listen to yourself girl! I personally would’ve rather seen the film open with Danny already preparing for his trip rather than the odd flashes of imagery that ultimately foreshadow the things to come. Escott and Newman also attempt to touch on the psyche of those who lack an education or any future prospects, but we could have done with seeing into their home lives more than simple chit-chat, because otherwise the film is merely just a recreation of events. We’re also introduced to these characters in what appears to be a nice and modest neighborhood, it certainly isn’t working class Wales, so with no further exposition the audience hasn’t got a lot to go on.
Cruel Summer is a bleak and nasty film but that’s simply what the material calls for, much in the same way as films like “Cherry Tree Lane” and Jacob Estes underrated, “Mean Creek”. It also had shades of last years “Super Dark Times”only it’s much better structured. There’s an important lesson to be learnt about trusting your instincts and not giving into the peer pressure that comes with being a young adult. The film is smartly shot, well paced and everything sounds good. The mellow but deep score adds a nice layer and each of these young fresh faces deliver performances that are effectively nuanced. Full disclosure though, the violence is callous and cold and it sneaks up on you despite the fact that you know its coming. I found it a little hard to believe Danny’s parents would let him disappear for more than 24 hours with no parental guidance. The characters really frustrated me at times, namely Julia and I don’t think Phillip and Craig fully fleshed out the characters or their respective backgrounds, but hey, maybe the whole intention was to avoid them garnering any real sympathy from the viewer. Cruel Summer won’t be for everyone but it’s really well made and I feel like it’s an important film for teens. It reminded me tonally of the recent Polish film “Playground” *see review* https://adamthemoviegod.com/playground-review/ Cruel Summer is now available from Wild Eye Releasing as well as through various digital platforms like VOD. Check out the trailer below!
My rating for “Cruel Summer” is 7.5/10