February 27, 2018 Cruel Summer (Movie Review)
Not to be confused with Kanye West’s album tie-in from 2012, or Bananarama’s 1984 hit single, the new film Cruel Summer is a Chiller from Wales. Produced by 441 Films, Trebuchet Film Productions, Bang Post Production, and Dog of Annwn Films, it will be released on VOD Tuesday, February 27, 2018 via Wild Eye Releasing. It says it is based on a true story. Well, stories. Talking to Starburst Magazine, Co-writer, Producer, and Director Phillip Escott (Omega Rising 2017, American Warrior 2017) says the story was “from a collection of events.” These include the rise of UK knife crime between 2012-2013, and teenagers being made to set fire to a homeless man by an older boy in Liverpool.
The one that has the most similarities to the film was an incident in Sheffield in 2004. A mentally-handicapped boy went camping with his friends, only for them to torture him over 2 days. According to Escott, it haunted fellow Writer, Producer, and Director Craig Newman (Abomination 2013, Teenage Wasteland! 2016) a considerable amount. Enough for both of them to do their own take on manipulation and abuse.
It is about Danny (Richard Pawulski: All in the Valley 2014), an autistic boy who likes to go camping to ease his mind. Until he ends us being attacked by three enraged teenagers: Nicholas (Danny Miller: Emmerdale series, Jamaica Inn 2014), Calvin (Reece Douglas: Waterloo Road series, The Knife That Killed Me 2014) and Julia (Natalie Martins: Into the Woods 2014, Emmi 2017). They are seeking vengeance for a local girl he had harmed… or so their story goes. Is it the truth? Will Danny fall victim because of lies and rumours?
British cinema loves a good domestic Drama. Sure, Comedies can thrive like 2004’s Shaun of the Dead, or die at birth, like 2003’s Sex Lives of the Potato Men. The BBC love period Dramas, like their take on Pride & Prejudice in 1995, amongst numerous adaptations of works by Dickens, Eliot and the Bronte Sisters. Domestic Dramas really hit home. Director Mike Leigh made his name with the likes of 1996’s Secrets & Lies and 2004’s Vera Drake. Danny Boyle introduced himself and Actor Ewan McGregor to the world with 1994’s Shallow Grave and 1996’s Trainspotting. While Michael Caine made his name in dramas of varying degrees, be it as a vengeance seeker in 1971’s Get Carter or as the target of vengeance in 1986’s Mona Lisa. The question remains; is this one of the good ones?
One of the reasons why they work out is perhaps because they do not require a big budget – just a good script, acting, and everything else. In some cases, like this one, the low budget helps it look more down-to-earth and relatable to the audience. There are little to no fancy camera effects beyond editing and a love of close-ups. Instead of using a studio, it was shot on location in various spots around Cardiff. Escott and Newman also avoided having to pay for lighting equipment by filming during the daytime, so it is all filmed under natural light. If it did not have director credits or non-diegetic sound, it could have been a Dogme 95 film.
The story of Cruel Summer is so straightforward that, aside from specific scenes and details, it would be hard to mark out spoilers. The audience gets a taste of Danny’s doom through quick clips before his adventure begins. So, the film is more focused on showing them the journey of how Danny’s camping trip turns into a nightmare. Not to mention how the teens twist their story into a justification for brutality. It works out well when it gets the story moving; with Danny’s camping scenes being all idyllic and peaceful, while the teenagers’ scenes get aggressive and confrontational.
The plot may be simple, but the motivations behind it are more complex. The teenagers question each other about their plan, with Nicholas being the driving force dragging Calvin and Julia along. Miller does a good job at making him an angry yet sensitive figure – driven to extremes because of how hurt he is. It does not make him sympathetic to the audience – quite the opposite really – but he has a reason behind his bitterness. The others follow him out of a combination of peer pressure and feelings as well as deception and entrapment. Likewise, Pawulski does a believable, if perhaps idealised, take on an autistic character. He had odd mannerisms and tics, and is awkward in social situations, but he is sweet enough to garner sympathy.
Its journey approach makes it a slow film to follow. The build-up before the eventual meeting between Danny and the teenagers makes the carnage hit harder than a cold open wound. Yet it comes at a cost. Once the film reaches its climax, it does not have much gas left. That is not to say it has a bad ending. It is just that they could have expanded on some things. What happened to the teens afterwards? What about Danny’s parents? Or Danny himself? The audience gets an answer to one of these questions. The rest are either assumed, or told instead of shown. Still, the audience gets to see Danny walking through the woods and the teenagers playing about. This was likely due to the budget Escott and Newman had to work with. Yet between that and the 10 minutes of credits, it does feel padded out.
So, unlike Mona Lisa or Trainspotting, it is not quite a classic. But that does not mean it is bad. Flawed, yes. Slow, certainly. It even gets a touch close to being saccharine in parts. Yet, it works; it makes the audience feel for Danny, and dread Nicholas and his crew. It makes them hope there will be some way out of this. Yet, it just makes its violent conclusion hit closer to home than others. So, whether it will be revered or not, it is a good domestic drama for sure. For these reasons, CrypticRock gives Cruel Summer 4 out of 5 stars.