As the temperatures start to rise and we head into summer, it’s time for one of Freeform’s traditional teen thrillers. They’re frothy and melodramatic: good fun in their own right, but unabashedly television’s junk food. There’s something about Cruel Summer that’s special, though, a compulsively watchable quality that makes it that much more addicting. The simple story of a kidnapped teenage girl, and the question of whether or not one of her classmates could have helped rescue her from captivity much earlier, is pumped full of tension by Cruel Summer’s unusual narrative structure and strong performances from its two lead actresses.
Over the course of three summers in early 1990s Texas, we see the lives of Kate (Olivia Holt) and Jeannette (Chiara Aurelia) utterly transformed. Kate is a kidnapping victim; Jeannette, the girl who allegedly could have saved her but chose not to. One-third is set before the abduction when Jeannette was a happy, painfully awkward dork, and Kate was a high school homecoming queen. The second third is set during Kate’s captivity — while she’s trapped in a basement, Jeannette is changing up her style and taking over Kate’s position in the social hierarchy. And the last third deals with the fallout of Kate’s reappearance that sees both girls emotionally devastated: Kate, traumatized by her ordeal, and Jeannette, suddenly ostracized by the entire community and facing legal action after Kate accuses her of discovering her in captivity and leaving her to her fate rather than sounding the alarm.
Rather than approach this story from a strictly chronological perspective, the showrunners of Cruel Summer elect instead for something much bolder. These three distinct moments in time are intercut with one another, giving them the feeling that they’re all happening simultaneously within the narrative. It’s an unconventional move, but a clever one. It throws the contrasts between each time period into sharp relief, showing how significantly the lives of all the characters have changed over the course of just a few short summers.
Most importantly, it prolongs our sensation of suspense. By doling out tiny morsels of character development and plot revelations, they delay the moment when we’re able to solve the mystery for ourselves. The tension carefully built up in every episode as key events play out agonizingly slowly results in a compulsive watchability. Every time we think we have a handle on where things are going, or we’ve made up our minds and determined who is the villain of the piece, something shifts, often imperceptibly, and brings us back to square one. In short, it’s an incredibly shrewd mystery thriller in the guise of a soapy teen drama.
Holt and Aurelia, the two main stars of the piece, are more than up to the challenge of playing mercurial teens trapped in a nightmare. We feel sympathy for each at different times, and they’re incredibly effective at making us unsure of which one we should have loyalty towards. Jeannette begins the show so endearing, so earnest, that it’s hard to imagine her growing into the type of person who wouldn’t help a girl chained up in a basement.
When we see the glow-up that lands her in a higher position in the high school social strata (and a dreamboat boyfriend, notably the guy who was dating Kate before her abduction), we want to believe that she just grew in confidence and has blossomed into herself. But were there darker motives behind her rapid ascent in popularity? Has her plan all along been to Single White Female Kate and take her place? It’s difficult to tell if she’s sweet or manipulative, and our ultimate opinion of Jeannette changes once every five minutes.
Kate, for her part, is also more than what she seems. The perfect image of a high school beauty queen, her private life is complicated even before she’s abducted. She has a difficult relationship with her status-conscious mother, and she struggles to negotiate the demands of the position her family has to maintain in their small-town community. Then after the abduction, she’s full of rage, traumatized by her experiences. But the question remains: did she see Jeannette while she was held in captivity? And more importantly, can she trust her own memories of such a harrowing period in her life?
By delaying the answers to these questions as long as possible, Cruel Summer worms its way into your brain. A fairly conventional (one might say even Lifetime-esque) narrative somehow manages to represent the gold standard in soapy teen drama. It’s tightly written, well-acted, and has enough twists and turns that no matter how much you might want to, you just can’t stop watching.