[SXSW Review] 'Cruel Summer' is a High Stakes Mystery Depicting the Hell of Life as a Teenage Girl
Life as a teenage girl can often feel like one of the world’s cruel jokes...
...It’s a time defined by cliques and an unshakeable social ladder. Even with a group of friends to help you navigate the world, the curious pull of what it must be like in high school’s elite is always there for most of us, at least a little. Director Max Winkler, writer Bert V. Royal, and showrunner Tia Napolitano’s new show, Cruel Summer, which premiered this week at SXSW Film Festival, explores one girl’s transformation from average 15-year-old existing on the fringes of social spheres to queen bee…and her ultimate downfall when the dark secret to her social success is revealed.
Weaving across and between three years, Cruel Summer tells the story of Jeanette (Chiara Aurelia), a teenage girl who longs beneath the surface for the things popular girl Kate Wallis (Olivia Holt) seems to have without effort. Following Kate’s disappearance, Jeanette happily inhabits the empty queen bee spot, hanging out with Kate’s friends and even dating her boyfriend. By her 17th year, two years after Kate’s disappearance, Jeanette is the most hated person in America. The pilot episode wastes no time planting seeds of suspicion all over the place and seems fairly deft at alternating between the timelines. In the first year of the show, Jeanette and her original group of friends, Victor (Allius Barnes) and Mallory (Harley Quinn Smith), are harmless, happily existing in their own social circle and doing everything together. Jeanette’s parents and brother love her, and even have family traditions for her birthday. It’s clear Jeanette longs to be popular in a way Victor and Mallory don’t even see, but there’s no indication of anything truly sinister. In year two, Victor and Mallory are no longer around, Jeanette is now the popular girl she always wanted to be, and we learn that Kate has gone missing, though we aren’t quite sure for how long. In year three, Jeanette is 17, her relationships have completely dissolved, and she hardly leaves her house. Her dad is even convinced she’s a sociopath.
The tone of Cruel Summer exists somewhere between CW’s Riverdale and executive producer Jessica Biel’s popular psychological thriller The Sinner, a combination that works better than I imagined it would. It takes itself just seriously enough to not quite feel like camp, and to help us believe its sincerity. The dynamics between the characters feel honest to what we’re meant to feel their relationships are, and the lightly sinister mood does well in building itself across the years. It’s clear, for example, no matter what year the show inhabits, that the core friendship between Victor, Mallory, and Jeanette is important to each of them. A firm ground to stand on in the chaotic world of teenage living, and one keenly felt when lost. The seed of Mallory posing the idea that, sometime during the summer of ’93, when Jeanette is 15, they “do something illegal” hangs over much of the episode, particularly when we discover Kate’s disappearance and eventually the fact that Jeanette is believed to be involved.
The pilot spends most of its time building the shifting relationship dynamics and showing us the drastic changes they undergo the more secrets are revealed. It unveils the stakes for future episodes and builds the drama effectively. Each of the actors seems to truly live in their parts, and no one feels unbelievable or too over the top. There is plenty of room for both them and the story to grow with a surprisingly strong foundation under them, and the pilot’s cliffhanger is sure to capture interest.
Cruel Summer seems to know exactly what it is and what kind of audience its aiming for. As a proud member of that target audience, I can say with a fair amount of confidence that if shows about teens doing vaguely sketchy things and high stakes mysteries that completely dismantle people’s lives are to your taste, Cruel Summer will likely be right up your alley.
Cruel Summer premieres on Freeform April 20th.
By Katelyn Nelson
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