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Cruel Summer, review: Nostalgic teen soap is predestined to be adored by sad millennials

Is this smash-hit high-school thriller only set in the Nineties for the songs? Yes. Does it matter? Nope.

Adam White
Friday 06 August 2021 06:36 BST
Cruel Summer Trailer

If you thought the glitzy night-time soap opera died with the end of Desperate Housewives in 2012, you’d be very much mistaken. The genre is alive and well, only now it’s teeming with teenagers rather than scheming suburbanites. These twisty high-school soaps can be found skulking on obscure US channels aimed almost exclusively at teens, tweens and melancholy millennials pining for their lost youth. All – but mostly the latter – will find something to love in Cruel Summer, a mystery thriller cum nostalgia farm built from the best parts of Riverdale and Pretty Little Liars.

Flitting back and forth between the summers of 1993, 1994 and 1995, the series – a runaway smash earlier this year for US network Freeform and arriving this week on Amazon Prime in the UK – revolves around the fluctuating dynamic between a pair of teenage girls.

In 1993, Jeanette Turner (Chiara Aurelia) is a bookish 15-year-old with braces and spectacles, and the polar opposite of popular Kate Wallis (Olivia Holt), a radiant blonde as beloved as she is benevolent. In 1994, though, Kate has gone missing, while a very different-looking Jeanette is suddenly dating Kate’s former boyfriend and seems to have adopted her two BFFs. One summer later, a bedraggled Jeanette looks as if she’s spent a year cutting her own hair with a hedge trimmer, all the while awaiting a high-profile legal trial.

Created by Easy A screenwriter Bert V Royal – who left the show over apparent “creative differences” after its pilot – Cruel Summer unfolds like a beach read, dropping outlandish plot twists every 15 minutes or so. That it’s not all a bit much is mostly down to the show’s editing, which cross-cuts elegantly between summers and their changing emotional temperatures.

It also bears a sharp understanding of teenage transformation. Here, seemingly innocuous changes – of a haircut, a dress or a friendship – hold enormous weight. But when your whole world is your school hallway and your bedroom, why wouldn’t they feel monumental? Aurelia is particularly great at capturing that. She conjures three incredibly different versions of the same person over three years, but with enough shared DNA between them that her shifts in character aren’t jarring.

The only real question mark here is why Cruel Summer is set in the early Nineties. Showrunner Tia Napolitano has indicated that the era’s absence of iPhones and social media made for juicier story potential, but it feels like more of an aesthetic choice than anything narratively useful. Beyond the soundtrack choices (The Cranberries, En Vogue and Mazzy Star all make appearances in the show’s first three episodes), and occasional references to The National Enquirer and Jurassic Park, a version of Cruel Summer set, say, in 2013, 2014 and 2015 would be almost identical.

Chiara Aurelia in ‘Cruel Summer' (Freeform/Bill Matlock)

Still, it’s some nice nostalgia among all the plot twists. That is until you notice one of Cruel Summer’s young stars – Harley Quinn Smith – is the 22-year-old daughter of Clerks and Mallrats filmmaker Kevin Smith, and you practically expire of old age there and then. It turns out that it’s not summer that’s the cruellest thing here, but time.

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