Mental health is rarely portrayed accurately on the big screen, or even the small one, for that matter. Either total raving lunatics or psychotic villains, there are very few realistic mentally ill characters populating fiction. While this doesn’t seem like a very big issue at first, it’s worth remembering that there are millions of people out there being treated poorly due to outdated depictions of schizophrenia and other illnesses in media. In Phillip Escott and Craig Newman’s new film, Cruel Summer, we’re faced with a refreshing tragedy that treats its mentally afflicted main character like a true victim.
The story begins with an autistic young man named Danny, played by a stunning Richard Pawulski, planning a lonesome camping trip in the wilderness. Unbeknownst to him, a group of sadistic teenagers believes that he is the one to blame for the kidnapping and rape of a local girl, and decide to take justice into their own hands. Although some members of the group feel reluctant to participate at first, they are soon coerced by Nicholas, played by Daniel Miller, who has a secret personal reason for enacting revenge on poor Danny.
Although the overall plot seems like a basic thriller setup, the execution here is phenomenal, making this an extremely impactful movie. Richard Pawulski is especially great in his portrayal of a tortured soul attempting to find some degree of independence in a world not made for him. The other actors were all believable and even compelling at times, despite their horrible actions, but this movie was at its best when focusing on Danny’s solitary turmoil.
Escott and Newman obviously knew what they were doing with this story, having written the film as well, and it shows in their direction. The visuals were melancholy yet beautiful, but they never overshadowed the darker aspects of the movie. The film also respects its audience’s intelligence, making subtle points about the nature of prejudice instead of hammering clichéd messages down our throats. Cruel Summer also boasts that it’s based on a true story, but that remains to be proven, especially in an age where nearly every horror film is ‘based on a true story’.
Though some might argue that the portrayal of violence in the movie is gratuitous and in poor taste, I believe that it was well earned after the majority of the movie is spent learning about these characters and their motivations. The film is actually slightly reminiscent of James Watkin’s other british thriller with teenage antagonists, Eden Lake, with brutal elements that feel far worse than they actually are due to the calmer scenes that preceded them.
Overall, this is a great piece of independent filmmaking that looks and feels like a successful professional, studio-backed thriller. From the ear-catching soundtrack to the spotless direction and inspired acting, Cruel Summer is sure to have you crying by the time its gut-wrenching finale is over. If Escott and Newman keep this level of quality filmmaking going, I’m sure we’ll be seeing a lot more of their work in the future.