Coming of age is a constant negotiation between who you are and who you’re not — it’s the most intense period of a process that will last for the rest of your life. Coming-of-age movies naturally tend to dramatize that negotiation, which is why so many of them hinge on hollowed out Harry Potter types who become the most boring characters in their own stories: It’s easier to paint on a portrait on a blank slate, easier to keep score of what someone is adding to (or subtracting from) themselves when you start from scratch. The only problem with that approach is that it strands a lot of very similar teenagers in films about how they’re not like everyone else.
It’s a trap that’s endemic to its genre, and one that “Hot Summer Nights” tries to avoid in fascinating and disastrous fashion: Here’s a coming-of-age movie that straight-up refuses to negotiate between what it is and what it’s not, Elijah Bynum’s debut embracing every last cliche it can find in a perverse attempt to forge its own identity. It’s a noble effort that comes up empty. Instead of something original, we’re left with a sweaty pastiche that shares its protagonist’s desire to be all things to all people, only to wind up losing any sense of itself along the way.
Somehow managing to evoke everything from “Rushmore” and “The Virgin Suicides” to “The Sandlot” and “Goodfellas” within the first 10 minutes, “Hot Summer Nights” takes us back to 1991, when (white) America was trying to grow up without letting go of its glory days. The story begins in the well-moneyed world of Cape Cod, as a despondent, middle-class kid named Daniel (Timothée Chalamet) arrives at his aunt’s place for the season. The idea is that a change of scenery might help Daniel cope with his dad’s recent death — the plan seems to work, insofar as his dad goes pretty much unmentioned for the rest of the movie. Alas, the stilted and cringe-worthy narration (delivered by a wistful, potty-mouthed pre-teen boy who watches the action unfold from his bedroom window) lets us know that things aren’t going to end well for any of the people involved. A storm is bearing down on the coast in more ways than one.
The most striking thing about Bynum’s take on the early ’90s is that it feels a lot like the late ’50s (an urgent warning to millennial viewers: prepare to feel old). His Cape Cod is located somewhere between Mayberry and “Riverdale.” By day, the people live on Jesus and macaroni salad — by night, the place is overrun with possessive cops and violent drug dealers. Everything about the town is divided in two, and everyone who stakes a claim there can be sorted into either townies or summer birds; Daniel is such an object of fascination because he doesn’t fit into either category. His unclassifiable nature is practically a superpower in this corner of suburbia, where most of the kids his age are already trying to wriggle out of their roles. Bynum makes sure they feel like bystanders in somebody else’s story, shooting the locals through dead-on dolly zooms as they talk into the camera about the urban legends who walk among them (heavy shades of Wes and Paul Thomas Anderson).
One of those legends is Hunter Strawberry (Alex Roe), a townie who missed his chance to get out and start over. Hunter is pretty much the James Dean of Hyannis Port, if James Dean were blond and virtually braindead. Hunter’s got a bad boy edge, a profitable weed business, a sexual history with every woman in a 20-mile radius, and a beautiful sister named McKayla (Maika Monroe) who burns a little brighter than all the people around her. They’re a combustible duo, and Daniel turns out to be the spark that lights them off, selling drugs with one and falling in love with the other. Nobody is gonna be short of fireworks come the Fourth of July.
Daniel and Hunter get in over their heads, eventually earning the wrath of someone a bit higher on the food chain (“Brooklyn” star Emory Cohen, hammy as ever). Meanwhile, our hero attempts the full “Adventureland” with the most eligible girl around — a girl so hot that a local geek supposedly died a gruesome death after seeing one of her breasts, as though her bra were hiding the Ark of the Covenant.
Daniel woos McKayla at drive-in movies (“that was the day ‘Terminator 2’ came out,” the narrator remembers) and glittery carnivals, his formative puppy love soundtracked by a temporally discombobulating mix of bands that starts with The Outfield and reaches all the way back to The Zombies. At one point, McKayla takes a lollipop out of Daniel’s mouth, licks it, and shoves it back between his lips. It’s a summer romance told in the neon, hyper-fetishized way that a grown adult might remember their own, and “Hot Summer Nights” works best when it’s reflecting on how intense life felt when everything was still a mystery.
Some mysteries persist. Mysteries like: Why is McKayla interested in Daniel? Is it just for the novelty factor? Is she just trying to get back at her brother? Daniel seems like a decent kid, but he’s also exactly the blank-faced beanpole you’d expect to anchor a story like this. In his finest moments, Daniel tries to absolve himself of his anonymity by pointing out his own clichés. The other characters are happy to help him out, including the hard-assed cop played by Thomas Jane — he gets saddled with the dumbest arc in a movie that’s full of dead ends, and the worst line in a movie where most of the dialogue is mercifully forgettable: “This happens every summer. When the air’s so heavy you can’t breathe, when the nights turn long and sleepless, when you long for cooler times. You know what it is? It’s gonna tear you apart.” Oh, you’ll be longing for cooler time, alright.
Chalamet — captured here right before shooting his breakout performance in “Call Me by Your Name” — is straightjacketed by a character who’s snagged between the real and the representational. Daniel isn’t passive, but Bynum tells this story at too much of a remove to afford him the pathos required to justify any of his choices, which makes it tough to swallow when the kid becomes preppie “Scarface” in the third act. Or is “Boogie Nights” the better reference point? William Fichtner’s coked-out drug lord is basically doing Alfred Molina cos-play. Regardless, Chalamet is one of the most intuitive actors of his generation, and even he seems to lose track of what the hell is going on here.
As familiar as the first half of “Hot Summer Nights” can be, triteness isn’t necessarily fatal in a nostalgic romp that feeds off our collective memory. The interminable second half of the film doesn’t benefit from any such luxuries, as Bynum swerves this story into gangster territory without an exit strategy. It’s as if he felt the movie was always one ingredient shy of having a distinct taste of its own, and kept adding things to the mix until he ran out of time. After unsuccessfully mashing seven different kinds of coming-of-age stories together, cutting the whole thing with a new genre only dilutes the flavor even further. At a certain point, every teen has to define themselves by the choices they don’t make, and Daniel never gets the chance. He’d be lucky to get out of this place alive, and with time enough to start over somewhere new. Maybe he could become his own man, and front a movie that feels like it really belongs to him. We know that Chalamet did, and we bet that Bynum will, too.
“Hot Summer Nights” will be available on DirectTV starting June 28, and in theaters July 27.