Easy, breezy, beautiful summer trauma.
Freeform’s Cruel Summer has been all the rage over the last few weeks. It’s set in Texas in the early 1990s and follows two teen girls (Friends? Enemies? Strangers? We’re not sure!) and the fallout that takes place when one of them is kidnapped and the other appears to take her place.
The creative use of timeline was my favorite thing about the series. Each episode spans the course of the same set of days during the summers of 1993, 1994, and 1995. This allows for some stark contrasts between summers and for the mystery to unfold in an exciting way. Though I will admit, in later episodes the transitions between the summers can cause some confusion if you’re not paying attention.
The show stars two dueling teens – popular, rich Kate Wallis (Olivia Holt) and frizzy, brace-faced Jeanette Turner (Chiara Aurelia). This is probably the show’s most rote aspect. At first I found myself thinking: “Seriously? Rich, blonde chick vs. bespectacled loser is a tale as old as time. Yawn.” But once we start getting to know these girls, things do thankfully get a little more original. The 90s playbook would lead you to believe that we’ll hate popular Kate and root for Jeannette to take her throne, but it’s not quite that simple.
You see, Kate Wallis is not your typical queen bee. She’s actually… nice? It’s genuine, too. Almost saccharine at times, but she means well. And she’s figuratively trapped in her “perfect,” wealthy life before becoming literally trapped in her Assistant Principal’s (Blake Lee) basement for months on end. When Kate is eventually rescued, she’s changed forever. And she’s pissed – but more on that later. The show attempts to deal with some very dark and complex subjects: pedophilia, sexual assault, and trauma – to name a few. But it’s also a network television show, which makes for some cringeworthy dialogue and performances at times.
If I told you to picture an awkward, bespectacled teen girl who’s desperate to win some popularity points, you would picture Jeanette Turner. And that’s exactly who we meet in the show’s opening moments. Jeanette is also weirdly obsessed with Kate Wallis and we’re not sure why. Jeanette’s draw to Kate has a sprinkle of Fatal Attraction and a dash of The Talented Mr. Ripley. So much so that Jeanette begins to wear articles of Kate’s clothing that she’s found, take on her interests, and eventually, almost seamlessly, slip into the void she leaves behind.
When Kate finally does go missing, Jeanette wastes no time befriending Kate’s besties and even snagging her boyfriend, Jamie (Froy Gutierrez). Like Kate, Jeanette also changes drastically over the course of those three summers. She goes from braces (1993) to filling Kate’s cool girl void (1994) to most hated girl in America (1995). Why does everybody suddenly hate Jeanette? Well, because of Kate Wallis.
You see, after Kate is finally rescued from Mr. Harris (who’s shot in the process) she’s pissed that Jeanette seemingly stole her life. It doesn’t matter that said friends and boyfriend immediately dump Jeanette as soon as Kate returns. The damage is already done, and Kate doesn’t want the affections of the disloyal. She’s understandably jaded and angry that the world continued to turn without her. So, Kate tells the cops that Jeanette saw her, knew she was being held captive in that house, and did nothing about it. Jeanette adamantly denies this, then turns around and sues her for defamation, which is when the shit really hits the fan.
At first, we think Kate must be lying, but the more we learn about Jeanette and what really happened that fateful summer of ’93, the more it seems like Kate might actually be telling the truth. Or a version of the truth, at least. Because it turns out that Kate hasn’t been completely honest either. While she did indeed end up locked in Mr. Harris’s house, he wasn’t always her captor. At first, she wanted to stay. At first, she stayed because she thought she loved him.
Cruel Summer is a fun, binge-able network drama that cuts a little deeper than you expect at times. It might be littered with cliches, but they’re palatable. While the 90s setting is yet another example of Hollywood milking the nostalgia cash cow, I’m a 90s baby so few things get me reminiscing as much as dial-up internet and thirty-foot, curly-corded landlines. And the twist ending in the show’s final moments is *chef’s kiss.*
There’s no denying that Cruel Summer draws a lot of inspiration from our favorite 90s movies of yore. I found myself nostalgic for some of my favorite 90s classics, which are really everyone’s favorite 90s classics, because the 90s were the best decade ever (though I may be somewhat biased).
Here are the movies I will definitely be re-watching now that I’ve finished Cruel Summer:
Small town? Check. Mystery? Check. Someone getting punched in the face? Check. Also, it takes place in the summer?! Double check.
2. Now and Then
They’re both coming-of-age stories and who isn’t a sucker for those? Especially when it’s set in a small town. And I have three magic words for you: Kids. On. Bikes. Does it get any more nostalgic than that?
In the pilot episode of Cruel Summer, the kids are all at the mall, debating whether to see Jurassic Park again and I got the urge to watch it immediately. It still holds up.
The original Jurassic Park. The first movie. None of that Jurassic World nonsense. Just give me some good old fashioned animatronic dinosaurs, severed limbs, screaming children, and Jell-O. That’s all I need.
Speaking of malls – I miss them. Even pre-pandemic, I feel like malls were dying. Why did we all stop hanging out at malls? Do we blame Jeff Bezos or our own hermit-like laziness?
Like Cher Horowitz, the kids of Cruel Summer spend a lot of their time at the mall and I’m jealous.
Because how can you mention the 90s and mystery and not immediately think of Scream? Or Sarah Michelle Gellar? I mean, SMG was the 90s scream queen. Now that I think about it, Kate Wallis has major SMG vibes. If Cher Horowitz and Buffy Summers had a love child, it would be Kate Wallis. That’s Cruel Summer in a nutshell: pretty, poppy fun that’s also got a fang-y dark side. And lucky for us, we’ll be getting a season 2!