Some stories are just genuine horrifying without needing to be horrific. Cruel Summer is one of the most horrifying, disturbing and difficult movies you are ever likely to encounter and it’s all the more terrifying because it’s not a story about men in masks, monsters or supernatural creatures. This is the grim, all-too-plausible story of the disgusting things people can do to one another, for utterly appalling and inexcusable reasons – and sometimes for no real reason at all.
Danny (Richard Pawulski) is a bright, pleasant young lad living with autism. Working towards obtaining his Duke of Edinburgh award he sets out to spend a quiet night camping in the local woods, his proud but anxious parents close by on the end of a telephone. Elsewhere Nicholas (Danny Miller), a feckless, angry, disenfranchised teenager is dumped by his girlfriend and he doesn’t take it well. He seeks solace with his pitiful posse Calvin (Reece Douglas) and Nicola (Natalie Martins) who, bitter because of Nicholas’ lack of interest in her, tells him that his now ex-girlfriend has been sleeping around and can count young Danny amongst her conquests. It’s not true, of course, but Nicholas is incandescent with adolescent rage and, Calvin and Nicola trailing after him like lost puppies, he sets out to track down Danny with the intention of teaching the boy a lesson.
Cruel Summer is both a brilliant achievement and a sickening, deadening experience. Filmed in and around Cardiff on a budget which brings a new meaning to the word minuscule, Craig Newman and Phillip Escott demonstrate an extraordinary maturity in both script and direction and they bring their gut-churning story to the screen with astonishing clarity and a genuine sense of style. Cruel Summer looks like the work of far more experienced filmmakers and every frame exudes a confidence and crispness which eschews showiness and fussiness and just gets on with the job of moving the story forward and to a place we really wish it wasn’t going to go. No tricks, no artifice, no showing-off; Cruel Summer is almost documentary in nature and it certainly comes across as a tough, unforgiving modern story of disaffected, ill-educated urban kids with no morality, no sense of right and wrong and absolutely no boundaries.
Cruel Summer deftly builds up its burgeoning sense of dread as Nicholas and his aimless hangers-on prowl the streets and alleys of the city in search of their prey. Nicholas becomes increasingly wound up the more elusive Danny seems to be but when the moment arrives and they finally find him, harmlessly minding his own business in his tent by the side of a lake, all bets are off and we realise that the film is going to get very dark, very difficult and very challenging. What happens isn’t easy to watch, it’s not pleasant to watch; it’s really more repellent than any stalk’n’slash or zombie flick and you’ll be willing someone – anyone – to step in and intervene to bring an end to the spiralling madness.
All that can be really expected from Cruel Summer (which world premieres at FrightFest this August) is that you admire the craftsmanship which has clearly gone into its making because you’re unlikely to be able to admit that you enjoyed it. Performances are top-notch and naturalistic, from Emmerdale’s Danny Miller’s thoroughly detestable and utterly irredeemable Nicholas, Natalie Martins as the witless, vacuous Julia whose pathetic lie sets a terrible series of events into motion, and Reece Douglas as Calvin, the only one of the three to display any sort of moral compass. But perhaps the real standout here is Richard Pawulski whose portrayal of the naïve, innocent Danny will quite possibly break your heart. As a piece of visceral contemporary British cinema we recommend Cruel Summer almost unconditionally. But be warned; this is not for the faint-hearted. This is a film which will live with you and trouble you for some time.
CRUEL SUMMER / CERT: TBC / DIRECTOR & SCREENPLAY: CRAIG NEWMAN, PHILLIP ESCOTT/ STARRING: DANNY MILLER, RICHARD PAWULSKI, REECE DOUGLAS, NATALIE MARTINS / RELEASE DATE: DECEMBER 12TH
Expected Rating: 6 out of 10