REVIEW: A double-whammy doozy of a narrative device is at the heart of the compelling new teen drama Cruel Summer (debuting on Amazon Prime Video this Friday, August 6).
Not only do events play out on roughly the same day across three consecutive calendar years, but each of this impressively taut psychological thriller’s 10 episodes looks at things from alternating characters’ perspectives a la The Affair.
When we first meet Jeanette Turner (Chiara Aurelia), it’s 1993, and she’s a self-confessed “nerdy 15-year-old” looking forward to celebrating her birthday with her family and two best mates Mallory (Harley Quinn Smith) and Vince (Allius Barnes). As they enjoy an afternoon at the mall, she dreams of being pretty and popular.
Flash forward 365 days and she has a boyfriend – Jamie (Froy Gutierrez) – and is most definitely part of the in-crowd.
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However, a shadow hangs over the community of Skylin, Texas. Jamie’s former girlfriend Kate Wallis (Olivia Holt) has been missing for almost 12 months. While there’s relief for the town when she’s eventually found safe and sound, her return begins a nightmare for Jeanette.
The National Enquirer calls her a “satan worshipper”, the Governor of Texas labels her a disgrace and she honestly believes she’s the most hated person in the nation.
“I’ve been lied about, spat at and made fun of,” Jeanette opines to her lawyer, a woman concerned at her young charge’s “likeability” from a jury’s perspective. “People don’t whisper things, they say it loud so I can hear it and there’s graffiti on the car and garage almost every other day.”
Her crime? Kate has claimed to anyone who will listen that Jeanette took over her life in her absence and that she could have gotten her rescued earlier, but stayed silent.
As he proved with the vibrant, star-making Emma Stone movie Easy A, Cruel Summer creator Bert V Royal has a knack for bringing to life the trials and traumas of teenagers in a believable and entertaining way.
Here, he cleverly uses the fractured narrative to constantly shift viewer sympathies between Kate and Jeanette, making us reassess what we thought we knew and look at what seemed straightforward events in a new light.
Each of the trio of time periods are presented in a different hue for easy identification – colder tones reflecting the darkening mood, as both girls’ lives take a significant turn for the worse, while period hits like The Cranberries’ Zombie just add to the growing atmosphere of dread and distrust.
Perhaps the real key to Cruel Summer’s success though are the terrific performances of former Disney teen star Holt (Kickin’ It) and Tell Me Your Secrets’ Auerlia. Both sell the premise, their emotions and the character arcs magnificently, drawing you into the story and keeping you glued to the screen.
Cruel Summer begins streaming on Amazon Prime Video on August 6.
Five other fabulous ‘90s-set teen dramas (and where you can watch them)
My So-Called Life (Disney+)
Before Homeland, before Temple Grandin, before even Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, Claire Danes delivered a standout turn in this short-lived series which debuted in 1994. She plays Angela Chase, a 15-year-old girl attempting to navigate a path through the perils of high school, friends, guys and parents.
Heartbreak High (Netflix)
A hastily assembled spin-off of the 1993 hit Australian movie The Heartbreak Kid, this seven-season show saw Alex Dimitriades, Nico Lathouris, Doris Youanane and company reprise their roles as teens struggling with the trials and tribulations of attending Sydney’s Hartley High. Grittier than traditional Aussie soaps like Neighbours and Home and Away, its characters were also far more reflective of multi-ethnic Australia.
Dawson’s Creek (Netflix)
The ever-dramatic lives and loves of Joey, Pacey, Jen and Dawson gripped a generation throughout this Kevin Williamson-created show’s six season, 128 episode run. Selling countless soundtrack CDs, it made Massachusetts a must-visit destination (even though it was shot in North Carolina) and stars out of its leads James Van Der Beek, Katie Holmes, Michelle Williams and Joshua Jackson.
Before bamboozling us with Lost, JJ Abrams cut his teeth on this delightful romantic-drama about a young woman (Keri Russell) who follows her high school crush to college. Things got really interesting during the latter part of its four-season run when time-travel entered the mix.
Beverly Hills, 902010 (Aro Video)
The voice of a generation (even if the actors were much older than the characters they played) and a show that reflected the decade it ran for, Aaron Spelling’s Hollywood-inspired soap captivated teen audiences with its heady mix of issues, romantic entanglements and regular crises. While it will forever define the careers of the likes of Luke Perry, Jennie Garth, Shannen Doherty and Jason Priestley, it also gave early roles to actors of the calibre of Hilary Swank.