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Cruel Summer (Movie Review)

Cruel Summer (Movie Review)
02.22.2016by: Cody Hamman
8 10

PLOT: An autistic youth finds himself the target of a peer's violent rage after lies about him are spread through the neighborhood.

REVIEW: The directing duo of Phillip Escott and Craig Newman have made a stunning, chilling feature debut for themselves with CRUEL SUMMER, a film which claims to be based on unspecified true events. Even if the exact case it was inspired by isn't directly stated, or even if no true crime case went down exactly as things play out in the film, any viewer is likely to be familiar with some similar scenario, a tragic story of people preying on someone weaker for incomprehensible reasons, or for no particular reason at all. The knowledge that this sort of thing really happens quite frequently makes watching these dramatized events all the more disturbing.

A Welsh production, CRUEL SUMMER stars Richard Pawulski as Danny, a young man with autism who isn't letting his condition hold him back in life. He's seeking a little independence, and he wants to better his standing in the Duke of Edinburgh's Award rankings, the DofE being a program that awards young people for going through self-improvement exercises. The exercise Danny embarks on as the film begins is a solo camping trip, an exercise that will unfortunately make him very vulnerable.

Pawulski delivers a great, endearing performance, and as we watch Danny go about his day and have awkward interactions with people, we get a good sense of who he is. We come to care for him. He's a good, thoughtful kid, with sweet, caring parents. He hasn't done anything wrong, and wouldn't. 

But rumors begin to be spread about Danny. When tough kid Nicholas (Danny Miller) has a blow-out with his girlfriend, his pal Julia (Natalie Martins), who would like to have Nicholas to herself, comes up with a lie that Nicholas's girlfriend, who was a virgin until they got together, was actually with several guys before Nicholas. The one she names is Danny, "that spastic kid". Julia is just hoping that she'd be able to lure Nicholas from the other girl with this lie. She doesn't consider how dangerous Nicholas's bruised ego might be.

Nicholas immediately launches into a rage, deciding he needs to go beat the hell out Danny, or worse. Julia is so enamored with him that she's willing to along with whatever he wants. To make things even less fair, they recruit the aid of their friend Calvin (Reece Douglas) on their violent mission by making up another lie about Danny, this one that Danny is a rapist pedophile, a danger to Calvin's little sister.

Miller does fine work in the role of Nicholas, but the character is driven solely by anger and hatred. There's not a lot of nuance there. There is, however, more depth to the characters of Julia and Calvin, and Martins and Douglas both do a wonderful job conveying the conflicted emotions the characters have about what Nicholas drags them into.

The trio's search for Danny leads them into the woods where Danny is camping alone, and as these storylines and characters near convergence, the feeling of dread becomes palpable. As troubling as the situation is in itself, the score composed by Josef Prygodzicz makes it even more effective, almost unbearably unnerving. CRUEL SUMMER may not be a horror movie in the strictest sense, but it's certainly horrific.

Most of all, what makes the film work as well as it does is the fact that Escott and Newman did an incredible job in making it seem very real. There isn't a false step at any point, this truly feels like life playing out on the screen, a terrible event captured on camera as it occurs in a beautiful location.

As of this writing, CRUEL SUMMER has not yet secured a distributor and is just starting to make its way out into the festival circuit. It remains to be seen how things will go for it, but I believe that it is going to go over very well, and that Escott, Newman, and the cast are going to receive a lot of deserved positive attention. This is a fantastic indie thriller that will get under your skin and hurt you, and when the chance arises I highly recommend that you let it do so.

Extra Tidbit: Would you like to see CRUEL SUMMER?

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