Imagine a wistful hooking-up-on-the-boardwalk coming-of-age film, set on Cape Cod during the long hot summer of 1991, starring Timothée Chamalet in a variation on the passively precocious owl-eyed dreamer he played in “Call Me by Your Name.” Now imagine a scuzzy underworld drama that takes that same Chalamet character, in all his hooded sensual innocence, and turns him into a pot-dealing version of Mark Wahlberg in “Boogie Nights”: a cold hard opportunist who gets hooked on the life.
Put them together and you have “Hot Summer Nights,” a weirdly “romantic” drug drama that wastes no time burning plausibility to the ground. Yet even when it does, the actors keep it alive (sort of). Still, you can’t stop wondering if the first-time writer-director, Elijah Bynum, who has a talent for atmosphere, meant for us to actually take the story on the level. If so, it was a miscalculation. He has made what feels like a “Miami Vice” episode ripped out of some sensitive and nostalgic teen dude’s diary.
Chalamet’s Daniel Middleton starts off as an awkward, alienated, asthmatic loner who sits around in his bedroom drinking in the forlorn strains of Linda Ronstadt’s “Long, Long Time.” He is sent off to spend the summer with his aunt in Hyannis, where he’s an odd boy out, caught between the townies and a village of slumming tourists. But then he meets the two most beautiful people in town: Hunter Strawberry (Alex Roe), a pot dealer in a red Mustang who swaggers into a party looking like a brooding grease-monkey version of James Dean; and Hunter’s estranged sister, McKayla (Maika Monroe), who with her cutoffs and come-hither pout is the most coveted girl around. It’s Daniel’s destiny to win and betray both of them.
All of which might be more believable if the film didn’t present Daniel, in the early scenes, as a geek who doesn’t know how to talk to girls and can barely hold onto his beer cup. That said, Chalamet makes geekery captivating. When he meets Hunter, a loser-stud who fell into the pot-salesman game and now can’t imagine doing anything else, he charms him with his quick brain and becomes his assistant.
That you can buy.
What we can’t buy is Daniel’s overnight transformation into a hustler who insists on taking Hunter’s business to the next level. “Hot Summer Nights” was shot just before “Call Me by Your Name,” and it spent some time on the fabled Black List of ostensibly hot unproduced screenplays. Yet the joke of the movie is that a first-rate script is exactly what it doesn’t have. Bynum has made a half-baked, beyond-the-law “Adventureland” that keeps cutting corners, and never begins to explain how Daniel could have the moxie, the contacts, and the underworld acumen to transition from being a pot dealer’s wide-eyed beanpole lackey, hawking dime bags to tourists and locals, to becoming a sharp-edged drug salesman moving product in bulk form.
Yet Chalamet is such a good actor that he demonstrates how, in a movie that did explain it, you might buy him as a flyweight criminal opportunist. Chalamet has dark eyes and eyebrows that dance in his pale thin face, focusing his intensity, but more than that he has a quality of heartlessness that will take him far. I don’t mean that he doesn’t possess heart — only that he has the ability to be magnetically self-directed and even cruel, which is an element of what any true star needs. (He drew on those qualities in “Lady Bird.”) When he’s in broken-geek mode, it’s hard to believe that someone like McKayla would waste a second glance on him, but Chalamet gives Daniel the fumbling sexiness and surly instinct to break through her defenses.
They spend a romantic summer together, even as Daniel, in his other life, is making serious drug money. But here, once again, comes the schlock factor: The movie depicts Hyannis as the sort of small town where everyone knows everyone else’s business — but somehow, despite the youth-gossip grapevine, we’re supposed to accept that Hunter, with his street smarts, and McKayla, the most plugged-in girl around, could spend the entire summer without knowing that Daniel is involved with either of them.
Hunter, at a house party in Boston, pistol-whips a drug salesman to within an inch of his life, and we think, “What’s he going to do to Daniel when he learns his sister is sleeping with him?” The film sets up this old-style sexual conflict only to let it wither away. Yet Alex Roe gives an expert performance as the doomed Hunter; he’s tense, poised, suffused with a bad-boy awareness that his life of dealing can only crash and burn. He comes closer than anyone in the film to creating an organically believable character.
There’s not much early-’90s atmosphere in “Hot Summer Nights,” apart from “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” playing at the local drive-in. Bynum stages a good scene with a cocaine dealer, played by the always inventive William Fichtner, that exposes the film’s “Boogie Nights” pretensions. He also stages a lot of moonlit canoodling between Daniel and McKayla that’s meant to tug at our hearts, though the film loses its pulse in these scenes. Maybe that’s because McKayla is more a male dream than a fully fledged character. Like the rest of “Hot Summer Nights,” she’s a fantasy pretending to be real.