Cruel Summer (2016)

There is an interlude in Phillip Escott and Craig Newman’s feature debut Cruel Summer where Nicholas (Danny Miller), Julia (Natalie Martins) and Calvin (Reece Douglas) are shown joyfully messing about in a children’s playground. We already know, from an impressionistic prologue, that the path down which they are headed will end in bloody violence, and we have just seen them stealing beer and rum from an off licence (after the shopkeeper suggested that Nicholas looked too young to buy it). So the playground sequence is an important corrective, reminding us that these three, for all that they have done and will go on to do, remain children, merely swinging in the park at the edge of adulthood. Their transitional status – as teens on the cusp – is underscored by lyrics on the accompanying soundtrack (“seeming young and feeling old”).

These kids’ troubled journey into adulthood will take them from the relative civilisation of a town in South Wales to the woodland wilderness a mere bus ride beyond; and their coming of age will see them travelling out of bounds, not – like the young friends in Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me (1987) – to see a corpse, but rather to make one. Just dumped by his girlfriend Lisa, Nicholas is looking for someone on whom to take out his bottomless anger and aggression, and Julia, desperate for Nicholas’ attention, maliciously suggests that Lisa had been sleeping behind Nicholas’ back with Daniel (Richard Pawulski) – and they both set out “to fuck him up.” Along the way they pick up Calvin, a boy recently moved from the city in part to get away from random acts of violence, and they recruit him to their mission by claiming that Daniel is a paedophile and rapist.

So the trio, spiralling in the momentum of their mutual deception (and Nicholas’ bullying), arm themselves with stolen scythes and head towards the lakeside camp where autistic, innocent Daniel is staying alone overnight to earn a Duke of Edinburgh Award. Daniel’s own Edenic rite of passage seems destined to come to a horrific end.

Cruel Summer evokes other recent films of errant British youth – Thomas Clay’s The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael (2006), Julian Richards’ Summer Scars (2007), James Watkins’ Eden Lake (2008) – while, through the sheer simplicity of its narrative’s trajectory, opening itself up to being read as a suggestive state-of-the-nation allegory. If Calvin has hopes and dreams of a better future for himself and his own eventual children, to be achieved through tertiary education and moving to better environs, Julia responds, “You ain’t going to uni – none of us are… Uni is for the posh twats.” This sense of marginalisation, social exclusion and class fixity fuels these characters’ desperation and rage, until in the end, inevitably, they lash out irrationally, destroying their own as well as their victim’s life. Scale it up, and the same feelings of hopeless, aimless disaffection that are seen here are also what has led so many in Britain not only to divert their generalised grievances onto migrants and other minorities, but also to vote in plebiscites very much against their own interests.

Beautifully – and elliptically – shot, with all the worst atrocities being kept off screen as the camera cuts away from human nature to its more summery, sylvan variety, Cruel Summer is a harrowing idyll of society at its most adolescently self-destructive.

© Anton Bitel