Inspired by a series of real-life events, Cruel Summer follows an autistic boy named Danny (Richard Pawulski), who ventures out camping as part of his Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme. Unbeknownst to him, three youths are hunting him down. Nicholas (Danny Miller of Emmerdale) is out to cause serious violence towards Danny, due to a lie by the enamored Julia (Natalie Martins) who is envious of Nicholas’ obsession with his recent ex-girlfriend. After recruiting new boy, Calvin (Reece Douglas of Waterloo Road) with a lie about Danny being a peadophile, the trio close in on the innocent Danny, as Nicholas’ behaviour gradually becomes more erratic and violent. As tensions rise, Julia and Calvin must decide whether they can go along with Nicholas’ deadly plan.
This was a controversial showing at the festival, which was made evident by some of the audience’s questions in the Q&A. Compared to the usual technical questions at previous screenings, the questions asked about Cruel Summer were more social and moral based. One viewer did not feel that this should be shown at a horror fest because the subject matter was “too horrific” and not as escapist as more conventional horror films. Another viewer was concerned about the film being a potential influence on younger viewers to commit similar violence because it could be seen as “entertainment”. Others, including myself, defended the film for the reasons I am going to state.
Cruel Summer is marked as a feature that is “based on true events,” that have been happening in England over the past few years where special needs individuals are victims of cruel acts of violence. When the viewer can apprehend that Nicholas exists somewhere in the world, the horror the viewer witnesses on the screen becomes something more intense than what most horror fans are used to. The horror in Cruel Summer is more akin to The Last House of the Left. The horror is very real, urban and truly psychological. It comes from the people that walk alongside us every day, and when the evil is real, it adds such depth to the emotion and, in this case, the viewer is going to be absolutely crushed and crippled with psychological terror and suspense.
Secondly, I’d like to say that Cruel Summer could be used as an educational tool to some degree. Despite our evolution as a society, there is still an unfortunate stigma and lack of education in relation to individuals with disabilities or special needs. A lot of people still believe that an individual with autism can act illogical, when that viewpoint is illogical in itself. I personally relate to the character of Danny due to growing up as an autistic child and growing up with other autistic children. It made the last half hour all the more horrific when he is eventually bullied and tortured. I gladly give praise to the writer and director duo of Phillip Escott & Craig Newman, as well as the main cast. Richard Pawulski is extremely convincing in his realistic portrayal of a person with autism. The actors who play the trio of Nicolas, Julia and Calvin are also incredibly fleshed out, less one-dimensional villains, and more fully realised characters with varying moral shades of grey and their eventual deeds are not glamorised in the slightest.
The themes of Cruel Summer are incredibly relatable – doing whatever it takes to impress someone you admire, the yearning to be acknowledged and respected, the internal conflict of right and wrong when put under peer pressure and how subculture and society significantly affect one’s nurture. Cruel Summer is a tough watch that can be upsetting, it is one of the most emotionally disturbing films I have seen, but it is a film that should be viewed and it accomplishes what it sets out to do perfectly. It makes the viewer think, reflect and may even enlighten people on some particularly important viewpoints.
You can view our full list of reviews from Triple Six Festival here.