Hot Summer Nights is literally the first film project 29-year-old Elijah Bynum has ever directed. “Not a short film, or a commercial, or music video. I really had nothing to show,” he stressed to BuzzFeed News from the South by Southwest Film Festival, where the movie made its premiere this past weekend.
But for a debut effort — and, particularly one that covers the well-trodden ground of teen summer romance and amateur drug dealing — Hot Summer Nights will feel pitch-perfect to current twentysomethings. Set in 1991, the film follows Daniel (Homeland’s Timothée Chalamet), an insecure teen whose recently widowed mom ships him off to the Cape for a summer. He falls for the ridiculously gorgeous local heartbreaker, McKayla Strawberry (Maika Monroe of It Follows), and into a small-time weed business with her quick-tempered and equally hot townie brother, Hunter Strawberry (Rings’ Alex Roe). Things get out of hand quickly, but it’s the perfectly invoked sense of the era that keeps Hot Summer Nights from falling into clichéd territory.
For audiences who grew up during the early 1990s, the appeal of this summertime coming-of-ager is spelled out in its well-executed swaths of pop-cultural nostalgia. Terminator 2 footage is spliced into the movie twice (both times at a drive-in movie theater); Daniel and McKayla spend an evening at an arcade playing Streetfighter 2; there’s an epic mid-carnival kiss followed by fireworks; baggy pants and awkward horizontal striped shirts abound; landline phones take the place of iPhones; Daniel dons a “Jesse Jackson ‘88” cap; and the soundtrack is an eclectic mix of songs that were already considered retro in the ’90s (David Bowie, Linda Ronstadt, the Zombies).
But Bynum was careful not to overdo the throwback vibe. “We didn’t want it to feel like people were playing dress-up, or that it was just kind of a pastiche or a ‘wink wink.’” He also wanted to avoid direct parallels between his movie — for which the director is seeking distribution — and other highly successful projects that have benefited from nostalgia. “I wrote this script and we started shooting it before Stranger Things was even a thing. Now it’s very dangerous, because they’ve done such a good job capturing that, and you have to be careful not to get too close to that because you’ll be compared to them.”
Bynum’s brand of authenticity could come from the fact that he based the narrative on a true story, of two guys he went to college with. Like Daniel and Hunter, they started a small weed business, dealing out of their dorm, which then grew into into “an empire” that turned dangerous and tore the friendship apart. “These small towns have legends and folklore, and they’re passed down through generations,” the Amherst, Massachusetts, native said. “There’s something very comforting about looking back at a time that is beyond you; looking back at a time with wiser perspective, being able to re-evaluate it differently.”
Bynum doesn’t think he’s reinventing the wheel with his love letter to the small summertime towns of the East Coast. “If you look at something like Grease, which was made in the late ‘70s about the ‘50s, or American Graffiti, I think people are always looking back at the past and feeling nostalgic about it in one way another.” Yet, even Bynum can’t help but feel a little wistful for the ’90s, too. “I like when people still used payphones, and no one walked around with cell phones,” he sighs. “I think there’s something romantic about having to memorize a girl’s phone number and then call her up. But that doesn’t exist anymore, sadly.” He’s not wrong — who memorizes phone numbers anymore? — but for the two hours of Hot Summer Nights, it almost feels like the present.