‘Cruel Summer’ review: 90s kitsch of the best kind

The twists and turns come thick and fast with unreliable narrators galore, in this enjoyable teen mystery-thriller

Once you go beyond the gimmicky time travelling, Cruel Summer is particularly engaging. Following two teenagers, nerdy Jeanette (Chiara Aurelia) and popular Kate (Olivia Holt) over three years, Cruel Summer, alternates between the two girls’ point of view. The show looks at a particular day on all three years, starting with a title card that reads, “The events that are about to unfold take place on approximately (date), 1993, 1994, and 1995”.

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Cruel Summer starts with Jeanette’s 15th birthday and the beginning of the summer vacation on June 21, 1993, when she is wished by her loving family: dad Greg (Michael Landes), mum Cindy (Sarah Drew), and elder brother Derek (Barrett Carnahan). She spends the day with her best friends Mallory (Harley Quinn Smith) and Vince (Allius Barnes) making a list of daring things to do in the summer.

One of the first things they do is break into what they think is an empty house to play hide and seek. The school’s new vice principal, Martin Harris (Blake Lee), has moved in, and it is only Jeanette’s quick thinking, which allows the trio to escape.

Bespectacled with braces and frizzy hair, when Jeanette meets Kate and her boyfriend, Jamie, (Froy Gutierrez) at the mall, she is fascinated by Kate’s beauty and confidence. In 1994, Jamie breaks into Jeanette’s bedroom to wish her. We learn that Kate has gone missing, there has been a falling out between Mallory and Jeanette. Jamie is now Jeanette’s boyfriend and Kate’s best friends now hang with Jeanette, who has lost the braces and glasses and sports a chic hairdo.

Jeanette spends her birthday in 1995 fighting with her father and consulting with her lawyer, Denise, (Nicole Bilderback). Cindy has left the house and Greg has a new girlfriend, Angela (Brooklyn Sudano). Upon her rescue, Kate accuses Jeanette on national television of seeing her, but not getting help. Jeanette is shunned by the town and the family is ostracised.

As we get to look into Kate’s seemingly-perfect life, the cracks begin to show. Her mother, Joy (Andrea Anders) is controlling, while her stepfather, Rod (Ben Cain) is kind, his daughter by an earlier marriage is not, and rebuffs all Kate’s attempts at being sisterly.

The twists and turns come thick and fast with unreliable narrators galore. The sights and sounds of the Nineties from boxy computers, dial up modems and chat rooms to video rental shops are lovingly recreated. And oh the soundtrack! From The Cranberries’ Zombie to Oasis’ Wonderwall and Radiohead’s Creep, they provide a plaintive background score to the agony and ecstasy of growing up. The characters are well fleshed out. Jeanette’s nerdiness shows up in unexpected ways, including a meditation on antipodes, which was interesting enough to look up Bengaluru’s antipodal city; it is Hanga Roa in Easter Island. Kate, Vince, Mallory, Jamie and Derek are living, breathing characters. The adults are not omniscient gods, rather they are only human with all the attendant frailties.

Executive producer, Jessica Biel has said there will be a season 2 for Cruel Summer. That gobsmacking final scene has set up interesting places the show could explore, and we can hardly wait to immerse ourselves in more 90s kitsch.

Cruel Summer is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video

 

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