Cruel Summer

2 out of 5

Created by: Bert V. Royal

covers season 1

I appreciate the idea here, but there’s certainly such a thing as crafting too tricksy of a pitch such that you’ve backed yourself into a rather inflexible corner for making a quality final product.

Cruel Summer’s central premise works: one popular teen (Kate, played by Olivia Holt) goes missing; the unpopular girl (Jeanette; Chiara Aurelia) swoops in and absolutely takes her place – friends, boyfriend, status – and we use a puzzle box structure to fill in the Hows and Whys of that. This is absolutely viable teen drama fare, and is then given the potential for more contemplative aspects due to the circumstances surrounding Kate’s disappearance – a kidnapping, at the hands of an authority figure at her school – as well as the class disparity between the two girls and the accusation that rises in the wake of Kate’s return – that Jeanette knew of the kidnapping and remained quiet – which ruins Jeanette’s reputation. Heavy stuff, and definitely far beyond the surface level you-stole-my-boyfriend snippiness of the high level description.

But in order to tell this story, and to make it as puzzley-boxy as possible, Cruel Summer’s writers (presumably as pitched by creator Bert V. Royal) divvied up our timeline thrice, a year apart: before the kidnapping, during, and after. We use age-old shorthand methods for viewing the same character during different times – lighting changes, haircut changes, attitude changes – but this is such a relatively short difference between the eras that those shorthands are almost laughable. Yes, I think many of us had the “reinvention” experiment as a teen, where you change your wardrobe and style overnight, but it’s not like our friends and family don’t notice, and outside of the drama of the moment, it’s… a rather humorous affect of that age. Cruel Summer takes a handful of stereotypes from various teen personas – the dork with braces and bad hair and a goofy laugh; the rebel with a punk ‘tude and shoddy clothes – and drops them on top of Kate’s and Jeanette’s personas in each year, making the whole thing like a showcase for “ways your teenager may behave” as opposed to ever seeming like it’s a story about actual characters. And as events in the timelines converge it becomes somewhat problematic, as we have to see the moments when the two make their sudden changes, and it becomes just a tad more difficult to keep straight which year we’re in, because, of course, every episode has to make a point of jumping between all three, multiple times, and cutely juxtaposing events in each.

So it’s complexity for the sake of being clever, but maybe not what could’ve been best for telling its story. Which, getting down to it – and perhaps arranged a bit more linearly – is fairly strong. Cruel Summer does a quality job of “humanizing” its events, and making us understand (overall) those aforementioned Hows and Whys, even if it takes a cluttered approach to get there. (And I say this while ignoring the utter b.s. of the closing coda.) From an acting perspective, Holt is very solid – also proven in Cloak & Dagger – and sells her character; she may have an easier job than Aurelia, who has to do the whole ‘nottie’ to ‘hottie’ to DGAF runthrough, and is stuck with some very clunky dialogue, but the actor also doesn’t seem particularly comfortable in any of those types, making her half of the story slightly less convincing. It doesn’t help that the peripheral teen actors similarly seem stuck with some clunk, and are also not especially engaging. Thankfully, the younger ones are well supported by the adult actors around them, and we do cycle through the whole cast thoroughly enough so that you’re never wholly knocked out of the show by a particularly manipulative scene, or off performance.

Cruel Summer’s unnecessarily complicated setup lends itself to binge-watching for those intrigued by its mystery, but that forsakes its potential as something to explore its heavier themes – themes that would’ve been better served by a more straight-forward telling. But the glossy look of things and purposefully misleading information suggests those themes were maybe not intended to be the focus anyway.