3.5 out of 5 stars

Cruel Summer is a 1990s-set teen thriller about a mystery in suburban, middle-class Texas involving a group of teenagers. It thus feels a bit like Amazon Prime’s answer to Netflix’s recent Fear Street (2021) horror film trilogy, the first of which is also a ‘90s affair. However, Cruel Summer furrows less genre-based territory (superficially), by eschewing slasher tropes in favour of a more realistic and socially satirical approach. Gawky teenager Jeanette Turner (Chiara Aurelia) turns 15 in 1993—a milestone celebrated by her loving family and two best friends, Mallory (Harley Quinn Smith) and Ben (Nathaniel Ashton). As the three teens head to the mall, Jeanette has an awkward encounter with Kate Wallis (Olivia Holt), a popular girl whom frizzy-haired and brace-faced Jeanette clearly idolises.

The first episode alternates scenes set during the summers of ’93, ’94, and ’95. In the latter, Jeanette has become a shell of her former self, now living with an apparently single father who treats her with contempt, having to navigate both a deeply hostile community and meetings with lawyers, who are struggling to make this sullen, depressed, hopeless teenage girl “likeable” to a jury. Over the course of the episode, we learn that Jeanette’s idol Kate Wallis has disappeared, and by the end, we learn a bit about why Jeanette’s life is now in ruins as she approaches her 17th birthday.

The narrative structure is cleverly designed and emotionally resonant. We see Jeanette’s birthday mornings on each of her 15th, 16th, and 17th years, which allows us to see how far a young girl can fall in three consecutive summers. Initially, Cruel Summer’s ‘90s setting feels superfluous, but as one learns more about what happened to Kate Wallis and the social climate surrounding the mystery of her disappearance, it’s clear creator Bert V. Royal is mixing plot elements of both true crime and teen drama. There are strong echoes of the real-life Elizabeth Smart case here, too, who was kidnapped in 2002 at the age of 14 and kept captive for nine months by a sexual predator and his wife.

Cruel Summer’s coming-of-age elements feel in tune with Mean Girls (2004), particularly as Lindsay Lohan’s character resembles Jeanette in many ways. The comparisons go right down to the two best friends on the fringe of middle-class teenage society, and the conflict caused between them as Turner’s adopted by more popular “mean girls”. In fact, it’s possible to watch Cruel Summer as a darker reflection of Mean Girls, reengineering its comedic beats and themes into a psychological crime story. On the downside, the teen movie aspect of the series undermines the social commentary it’s aiming for. Once we recognise the tropes and imagery—from not just Mean Girls but all the fluffy, escapist works derived from it—it’s hard to take it seriously as a historical piece about being young, facing social pressures, and dealing with bad choices and their terrible consequences.

That said, the acting, cinematography, and soundtrack are so on point that Cruel Summer is still an intriguing prospect in spite of its derivative, populist elements. When setting a show like this in such a musically definitive decade, it’s tempting to drown it in a bath of pandering pop song choices. But a real effort has been made here to fit the songs to the story, playing them not just because they’re ‘90s standards, but because they emphasise the emotional core of what we’re seeing. Likewise, the fashion is ‘90s appropriate, but not obnoxiously so. (Everyone wears a lot of flannel, and the popular girls do a twinset-and-pearls thing that makes them look like they’re at one of those creepy “purity balls” so popular in the American South.)

The cinematography reflects the emotional states of the characters, with the summer of ’93 bathed in the Edenic glow of a late afternoon, with fireflies dancing in honeyed rays. These were my favourite shots of the production, capturing a bittersweet sense of innocence lost, not just in the lives of the characters but also in their society. As poet Stevie Smith wrote, “all things pass / love and mankind is grass.” Nostalgia for the ‘90s has at this point become so silly and obnoxious that it’s developed into a meme (“only ‘90s kids will remember this!”), but Cruel Summer plays with it in a thoughtful way. The summer of ‘94 is a little more bleached out, reflecting storm clouds on the horizon. It’s still late afternoon, but very late. The mall’s about to close and everyone’s itching to go home. The summer of ‘95, on the other hand, might as well be winter. Honestly, the washed-out look gets a little tiresome in these scenes and are maybe the least subtle aspect of the show, at least visually. The colouring is so stark and grim that you might as well be watching black-and-white.

The main performer’s acting is well calibrated. Harley Quinn Smith (daughter of writer-director Kevin Smith) is painfully believable as a grungy outsider, struggling to find and maintain her identity in the socially severe world of ‘90s Texas. Chiara Aurelia is the real standout as the lead, however. Obviously, a lot of time and effort has been put into her makeup and wardrobe work, so we see the Jeanette of those fateful summers as three different people. She begins as a gawky and adorable tween (in colourful outfits likely chosen by her mother), turns into the aforementioned twinset-and-pearls type, and ends up as a denimed post-punk with chopped hair. But Aurelia’s performance is nuanced in her developing body language, facial expressions, and vocal register. The heart of the story is her guilt or innocence. How responsible is she for her ultimate role as the most hated girl in America? It’s a complex character, and Aurelia shows a lot of depth in how she pulls off the different facets of it, coming across here as a loveable innocent, there as a hopeless victim, and sometimes as possibly malignant.

Speaking of the heart of the story, Cruel Summer ends on a last-shot twist I have mixed feelings about. I won’t reveal what it is, but I think it’s important to discuss its likely impact on the story. Cruel Summer’s final shot is more authentic than some, building on what’s already been established and not straying too far from who the characters are as people, then giving you a shock to go out on. But it undermines the poignancy of the story’s conclusion, making its thematic work less profound. It reduces a moving tale about the often unknowable vagaries of concepts like guilt and innocence, to a simple thriller and a series of plot devices. A wind-up machine. I love straightforward thrillers, don’t get me wrong, but when you spend so much time adding deep thematic undertow to your story, a nudge-nudge-wink-wink last-minute twist can feel cheap, especially when it seems designed to set up a sequel.

Nonetheless, Cruel Summer is an engaging and intriguing mystery thriller series. Despite its themes of kidnap, grooming, stalking, and sociopathy (which earn it trigger warnings before each episode), it’s ultimately a more thoughtful teen soap opera, but worth watching for those thoughtful elements if you’re not a teenager.

USA | 2021 | 10 EPISODES | 16:9 HD | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

writers: Bert V. Royal, Imogen Binnie, Tia Napolitano, Brian Otaño, Savannah Ward, Addison McQuigg & Matt Antonelli.
directors: Max Wrinkler, Bill Purple, Kellie Cyrus, Laura Nisbet-Peters, Daniel Willis & Alexis Ostrander.
starring: Olivia Holt, Chiara Aurelia, Froy Gutierrez, Harley Quinn Smith, Brooklyn Sudano, Blake Lee, Allius Barnes, Nathaniel Ashton & Michael Landes.