Danny (Richard Pawulski) is a teenager living with autism. We first meet him as he's preparing for an overnight camping trip in nearby woods, where he plans to gain a merit towards his Duke of Edinburgh award. His proud mum (Grace Dixon) and dad (Gary Knowles) help pack his bags and hand him a mobile 'phone which he's instructed to use in cases of emergency.
In another part of this small British town, troubled teen Nicholas (Danny Miller) turns up at the house of mate Julia (Natalie Martins), moaning that his girlfriend Lisa has dumped him because he's been "fucking around". Julia, who clearly has designs of her own on the repugnant Nicholas, is perturbed that he appears to be hung up on Lisa - and decides to tell him that she was far from the virgin she claimed to be when she first met him.
When Nicholas pushes Julia to give him the names of Lisa's former conquests, she picks Danny's name out of thin air. Nicholas is incensed at the thought of his ex-girlfriend having had sex with a "spastic". Naturally, this mindless thug's kneejerk response is to want to seek Danny out and give him a good hiding. Keen to impress, Julia agrees to help Nicholas in his plight.
In the meantime, Danny's dropped off by his doting parents and embarks on foot through the greenery, looking for a suitable spot to pitch up his tent in anticipation of an evening spent fishing in the woods' centrepiece lake.
A short while later, Nicholas and Julia bump into Calvin (Reece Douglas) while making their way to Danny's house. Calvin's new in town, having recently moved from a city, and is soon persuaded to join their hunt when Nicholas claims their quarry is a paedophile - and Calvin's 8-year-old sister may be at risk of harm unless they sort him out.
Before long, Nicholas, Julia and Calvin have turned up at Danny's house - where his mother innocently believes that they are school-friends of his (she recognises Julia) and points them in the direction of the woods.
And so, this unsavoury trio set off with the intention of giving Danny a lesson he won't soon forget. En route they steal a load of booze and fags from an Off-Licence, get drunk in a park, and nick some nasty-looking tools from the back of a local gardener's van.
As they make their way into the woods and Nicholas's anger towards Danny appears to be heightening, Calvin starts to have serious reservations. But Julia is quick to reassure him that Nicholas is a dangerous lad, and that the best thing they can do is go along with his plans.
Poor Danny, meanwhile, is sat on the bank side of the lake reading a book, oblivious to the trouble heading his way ...
CRUEL SUMMER may well be the feel-bad film of the year. A flash-forward clip at its start serves as a warning for us not to expect a happy resolution and, sure enough, with this in mind we watch with the dreadful weight of inevitability hanging over events. Every smile or naive matter-of-fact statement that stems from Danny's lips, all designed to help us warm to him, simply acts as a reminder that we're about to be punched in the gonads. Co-writers/directors Phillip Escott and Craig Newman follow through on that threat.
But more on that later. First, I'd like to nod to the film's obvious strengths. There's Lucas Tucknott's oft-times stunning cinematography to begin with, which from the off makes full use of some stunning Welsh scenery. The scenes he captures of fish jumping out of the lake in slow-motion really are something else. Then we have Josef Prygodzicz's emotive, piano-driven score which impresses from the opening frames. It lends an unforced melancholy to the already disturbing drama unfurling before our eyes. Escott and Newman's script feels authentic throughout, the pair of them tapping into the minds of disillusioned youth with a complete lack of contrivance. They ensure that the horrendous acts of the film's second half are rendered even more pointless as they're motivated by little more than battered male pride. And, although it's never explained, it appears quite apparent that Julia's initial claim that Danny shagged Lisa is a lie.
Then there are the performances. It's perhaps ironic that the only ropy acting in evidence comes from those portraying Danny's parents. The young cast, on the other hand, are exceptional. Pawulski elicits sympathy without ever overplaying it; his translation of an autistic teen is clearly well-researched and consequently extremely believable too. But it's the chavtastic miscreants who impress the most. Miller, a veteran of long-running TV soap "Emmerdale", is excellent as the despicable leader of the pack: strong, pathetic, evil, confused. Martins takes on a slightly more complex character but breathes life into her with frightening plausibility. She's the girl seeking acceptance, to the point that she's willing to go along with the object of her affection's deranged plans ... but still shows susceptibility to humanity, battling between her conscience and keeping an eye on her own personal goal. Douglas is no less imposing as the wannabe hard-nut who quickly realises he's been duped into picking on a perfectly innocent kid.
It's due to these above attributes, and the taut direction, that CRUEL SUMMER is such a morbidly addictive watch.
The film is based loosely on a real crime which occurred in Wales, back in 2000. Some details, along with character names, have been changed - in reality, the violence was prompted by the autistic teen making a lewd comment about his chief aggressor's girlfriend; the lads were actually good mates, whereas here they merely know of each other - but the plot stays close enough to ensure this is most certainly adapted from the press's coverage of the awful fate that befell the real Danny Evans.
With this in mind, CRUEL SUMMER's unsparing tone and unflinching portrayal of its protagonist's torture make this a problematic film to justify. I appreciate this was a hideous crime and to water it down would be irresponsible, effectively making it more palatable for moviegoers - which is the ultimate in irresponsibility. Where evil exists, it should be exposed.
But when the crime is relatively fresh and there are more recent reports online of the victim's mother living a life of seclusion brought on by her ongoing resultant despair, you have to question the existence of a film which depicts her son's tortuous fate in a manner which could easily be labelled as "exploitative". Especially seeing as though, a bit of wraparound onscreen text at the end notwithstanding, we don't really get any true insight into the crime or its perpetrators.
Still, moral qualms aside, I will say CRUEL SUMMER is a very well-crafted film and the co-filmmakers show great promise. See it, if you fancy being seriously bummed out.
CRUEL SUMMER is available now through Video On Demand, courtesy of Wild Eye Releasing. We were sent an online screener which proffered a crisp, clean and colourful transfer of the film respecting its original 2.35:1 ratio. The picture and English 2.0 audio were both excellent prospects.
While I may continue to question CRUEL SUMMER's very existence from a moral perspective, especially as it steadfastly refuses to offer any moral guidance (I imagine the directors will probably argue it doesn't need one: the deeds of the antagonists are sufficiently ugly to portray them as inhuman), I have to commend the film on its technical merits.
It's a haunting, powerful drama - once seen, it'll take you a while to shake it off.
Review by Stuart Willis
|Released by Wild Eye Releasing|