Welsh indie film Cruel Summer is difficult to endure and impossible to forget
Co-director Philip Escott apologized in advance for his acclaimed Welsh horror/drama Cruel Summer when he sent me a copy to watch, asking me to excuse the fact that it’s a “microbudget” film. He didn’t need to. It’s never how much money you have. It’s how you wield the brush. And Cruel Summer — impoverished resources or not — is masterfully made. In fact, it’s one of those great indie films where the rough edges and amateur actors only enrich the impact.
And what a wallop this one packs.
Cruel Summer (co-directed by Craig Newman) is a horror film in the way films like The River’s Edge, Bully and Requiem for a Dream are horror films, in that they hone in on young people drifting around their respective worlds without anyone to anchor them. These are youths without youth, lethally hormonal and taking release and refuge in any way they can while their mums and dads go about their lives, either oblivious or just so self-involved that they don’t notice and opt to live in willful ignorance. And it’s almost always when one’s guard is down that lazy, banal evil seeps in.
The film bounces dual narratives against each other, with a gang of bored suburban vipers led by the angry, malevolent and manipulative Nick (Danny Miller, in a seething performance) who, when he hears a rumor that local autistic teen Danny (Richard Pawulski, who is heartbreaking in a very difficult role) may have had sex with his ex-girlfriend the previous summer, decides to punish the kid, egged on by a female friend (Natalie Martins) who invented to lie in order to steer Nick’s affections toward her. What follows is a shattering, down-spiraling chain of events that climaxes in tragedy.
According to the opening credits, the story is based on a true event or an amalgam of several events, I’m not quite sure. But the sad thing is, we don’t need to know the specifics to believe this, because it happens every day. Charles Laughton’s brilliant 1955 film Night of the Hunter has a brief, lyrical sequence where an owl attacks a rabbit, to which actress Lillian Gish’s Rachel Cooper stares into the dark and says to herself “It’s a hard world for little things.” That it is. It’s an ever-present, sad fact that the strong will always prey on the weak. Pick up the newspaper any day, every day and you see this, endlessly. And that’s what happens in Cruel Summer. Danny is a gentle, intelligent boy, with loving parents who, despite his disability, have given him a wide berth to be independent. With this, Danny prepares to spend a night camping in the woods alone. We follow the boy as he meticulously packs and goes over every detail, excited to be doing something on his own and Escott and Newman cut between these lovely, moving scenes of discovery and solitude with vile sequences of Nick’s anger and brutality ratcheting. It’s like watching a pot of boiling, scalding water on the stove-top while a baby reaches slowly for the handle and we, the audience are powerless to intervene.
This is a serious, difficult to endure and impossible to forget film, with a haunting score (that echoes the work of Clint Mansell) and a series of searing performances that are as good if not better than any A-list actor’s work you’ll see this year.
However you see it…see it. It’s that good. Just don’t expect to shake it. I know I can’t.