Movie Review: Cruel Summer
Directors: Phillip Escott, Craig Newman
Writers: Phillip Escott, Craig Newman (story)
Starring: Richard Pawulski, Danny Miller, Natalie Martins, Reece Douglas, Grace Dixon, Gary Knowles
This is what real horror is – not the fantasy monsters we create for our entertainment – the fictional Vampires, Zombies, Frankenstein creatures or Werewolves - this is the human monster that sits next to us on the bus or in the classroom, the one that stands chatting to a friend on the phone or smiling at a stranger, all the while planning to do harm. Cruel Summer is a movie about what really horrifies us - the primitive, uncivilised impulse of the human animal towards violence and sadism.
Directors Phillip Escott and Craig Newman make their feature-length film debut with Cruel Summer - a harrowing thriller which follows Danny (Richard Pawulski) an autistic teen who escapes inner-city tumult to venture out independently into the tranquillity of the countryside as part of his Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme. In his solitary walk through the woods, he seems contented and confident, happy to escape the judgemental stares of others.
He is wholly unaware that he is being hunted by the vengeful and violent youth Nicholas (Danny Miller ‘Emmerdale’) who barely knows him. This is only because of a lie perpetrated by Julia (Natalie Martin), inexplicably enamoured of Nick and anxious to have him separated from his current girlfriend.
Nicholas coerces new boy Calvin (Reece Douglas) into joining the hunt for Danny by another lie, by insisting that he is a paedophile and he and Julia are seeking him out to ‘teach him a lesson’ and to scare him off from pestering kids. Despite her unease at Nicholas’s increasingly unjust incitements, Julia is willing to go along with anything he says.
Pretending to be friends from school, the three youths go looking for Danny at his parents’ house, who gullibly give out information as to their son’s whereabouts. Fuelled by alcohol, Nicholas’s behaviour grows increasingly erratic and violent as they close in on Danny, alone in the countryside.
The portrayal of violence in the movie is graphic, and seems particularly brutal due to the juxtaposition of the serenity of the backwoods lake where Danny is quietly fishing, to the gritty urban wasteland where the three antagonists loiter, swill alcohol, smoke cannabis and plot their vicious attack.
At only 80 minutes, the majority of the time is centred on the search for Danny, but the carefully constructed chronology maintains a sense of agonizing suspense. The visuals are melancholy and beautiful, but never overshadow the dark aspects of the movie.
The film respects its audience’s intelligence, avoiding a heavy-handed approach to making its points about ignorance and prejudice and choosing a subtler route – such as the unwarranted impatience of a shop assistant or the indication that despite his challenges, Danny is meticulous in his planning, adept at map reading, constructing a camp, understanding his environment and looking after himself in the wild – something that would probably elude the capabilities of his teen antagonists.
The performances of the young cast are impressive. Richard Pawulski is especially affecting in his portrayal of autistic Danny - attempting to find some degree of independence in a world not willing to take the time to understand him. Danny Miller is equally disturbing as Nicholas, who clearly gets sadistic pleasure out of dominating, scaring and hurting others.
In the movie’s 80 minutes however, there is little time to explore the deeper questions regarding the motivations and impulses of the characters. The dialogue only touches on the possible catalysts that combine to create Nicholas’s need to express himself in destruction and violence or why it is that Julia makes Danny the focus of her pernicious lie (perhaps the only clue is the clear envy with which she regards Danny’s secure family life and her odd need to get the attention of a man who is clearly a psychopath).
Cruel Summer is a distressing journey but an impressive first feature and piece of independent film-making. Although the overall plot seems like a setup for a basic thriller, the execution is extremely skilful. The cinematography of the countryside is lonely and tranquil; the grimy landscape of the city provides a sense of foreboding as we begin to understand the callousness of the trio that inhabit it.
Marketed as a movie depicting true events, Escott and Newman succeed in creating a sense of impending terror as we realise that people like this do truly exist. We have all seen the news stories - teens that set fire to a dog, eviscerate a cat or torture another peer because difference, disability or weakness are somehow an affront to them or a chance for them to feel powerful in a world which otherwise ignores them.
These news items disturb and repulse us and we move on quickly to try and think about something else, yet all over the world special needs humans are victims of barbaric acts of violence. We don’t like to face the fact that monsters live amongst us – they may be our neighbours, our classmates or our children.
In Cruel Summer, the horror we witness on the screen becomes something more palpable than the usual fare that most film-goers are used to. From the haunting soundtrack to the creative direction and accomplished acting, this is a movie which may be low on budget, but is disturbingly huge on impact.
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