Cruel Summer, 2016
Written and directed by Phillip Escott and Craig Newman
Starring Danny Miller, Reece Douglas, Richard Pawulski, Natalie Martins, Grace Dixon, Gary Knowles
Young Autism sufferer Danny enjoys the serenity and solitude of camping. That’s all about to change when enraged teens Nicholas, Calvin and Julia find him, each with their own agenda for wanting to see Danny suffer.
Inspired on tragically true events, Cruel Summer is the debut feature of Phillip Escott and Craig Newman, who together have a wealth of experience directing documentaries. That experience has been carried over into Cruel Summer, as the pair get startlingly real performances from their cast, and some harrowing visuals to match.
Young and innocent Danny, who suffers from Autism, is camping in the woods as part of his Duke of Edinburgh award with one simple plan: fish, eat food and then go to sleep. However on the other side of this Northern England suburbia, recently dumped Nick discovers that his former flame Lisa had a fling with Danny, which is something he can’t handle. Egged on by friend Julia, herself infatuated with Nick and jealous of his previous relationship, they attain help from new kid Calvin to track down Danny and ‘teach him a lesson’.
In a very smart move, Escott and Newman didn’t tie themselves down to any story of violence in particular and instead took influence from a variety of meaningless crimes committed by disenfranchised British youth. In this case its the heart-broken Nick and the pot-stirring Julia who goad Calvin into joining them based on a lie. While Nick wants to inflict pain upon Danny for ‘making a fool of him’, Calvin is under the pretence that Danny is a paedophile. Not only does this create a palpable tension between the violent teens, but it also raises quandaries about their willingness to lie to get what they want. It raises the question – which is beautifully never answered – did Julia make the story about Danny and Lisa up in the first place? It’s a brilliant and simple trope by Escott and Newman, and it really helps drive the narrative forward and put sympathy onto Danny rather than rely on the ‘disabled card’.
Nick is played perfectly and terrifyingly by Danny Miller, best known here in the UK for the soap opera Emmerdale, and his performance is so genuine where he adds more layers to the character in his tone and mannerisms that might have been lost by a lesser actor. There’s an internal conflict within Nick, which pays off in spades as the film comes to a dramatic closure. The venomous Julia is given life by Natalie Martins, and if there is any justice in this world (which this film often claims there isn’t), she will be given multiple opportunities off the back of Cruel Summer. She’s simply phenomenal and very convincing in her role, often toeing the line between light and dark. She’s clearly uncomfortable in the lie she’s helped weave, but her inexplicable devotion to Nick drives her to do bad things. It’s a captivating character study. “We always do what he wants,” she tells Calvin at one point. Speaking of Calvin, and he’s portrayed very well by Reece Douglas who mirrors Martins’ line-toeing performance, and this crew is rounded off perfectly by Richard Pawulski. According to the directors, Pawulski joined the production later than everyone else, with around a month before they started principal photography because they wanted to get someone who could give a convincing performance of Autism without pushing it too far. There could be some who will say Pawulski doesn’t quite nail it, but Escott and Newman’s writing and direction means the disability is never glorified. Even if the the character of Danny wasn’t on the spectrum, nothing would have changed.
However, Cruel Summer is not without its issues. The film only runs for 80-ish minutes but its more stuffed than a padded bra. There are several establishing shots used for extended periods of time, and the first hour of the movie is about the teenagers trying to find Danny. While this does create a horrible sense of foreboding, it’s also a case of “when are we getting to the fireworks factory?”. Building tension is one thing, but Cruel Summer feels cheap at times in its padding. An argument can also be made that Escott and Newman show us a more human side to Julia and Calvin in these sequences, but it comes across that Cruel Summer ran too short to be called a feature and was artistically extended.
Thankfully the payoff in the final act makes up for it. Miller really gets a chance to shine in the finale as does Martin and Douglas, and Escott and Newman create a real horrible atmosphere as this poor innocent is beaten upon by delinquent arseholes. The tension on screen is intense, and at times it can be difficult to watch as you beg for these characters to make better choices. Cruel Summer may not be based upon any one real scenario, but there is enough truth to this art to make it uncomfortable as all hell.
With any luck, Cruel Summer will be seen by a lot of people and it will lead to a successful feature career for everyone involved. Danny Miller is fantastic and Natalie Martins is simply sublime. Cruel Summer is an impressive feature debut for Phillip Escott and Craig Newman, and a horrible mirror to hold up to British teen culture.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Luke Owen is the Deputy Editor of Flickering Myth and the co-host of The Flickering Myth Podcast and Scooperhero News. You can follow him on Twitter @ThisisLukeOwen and read his weekly feature The Week in Star Wars.