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SXSW 2021 Review: Freeform's 'Cruel Summer' Introduces an intriguing timeline-shifting mystery

'90s teens navigate a mystery over three timelines in this brilliant noir-hued pilot.

A young blonde white woman looks towards the camera
(Image: © Freeform)

Our Verdict

An ambitiously told noir-tinged '90s period piece that weaves its way through three different timelines, 'Cruel Summer' is a 10-steps above your usual Freeform teen drama.

For

  • 🌸The cast is great.
  • 🌸An opening that will be remembered.
  • 🌸A mystery that will keep you engaged.
  • 🌸Chiara Aurelia is a star who you can't keep your eyes off.
  • 🌸Olivia Holt makes a big impact in her small moments on screen.

Cruel Summer is part of our SXSW 2021 coverage. You can find all of our reviews here.

We meet Jeanette (Chiara Aurelia) on her birthday. In fact, we meet her on three birthdays. She turns 15 in 1993, braces shining, her parents waking her up and showering her with love. In 1994 she turns 16, long hair, dappled sunlight and kisses with her hunky boyfriend. But it's in 1995 that Cruel Summer reveals its hand and hooks us in. That morning there's nothing but grey and shadows. Her dad furiously storms in and tells her that her lawyer is here. Jeanette sits up, hair hacked off and depression coming off her in waves. It's an engaging opening gambit that will captivate even the most casual viewer. And for the most part, Cruel Summer delivers on the dark mystery that its intriguing opening promises. 

One of the first things that stands out about this series is it uses its triplicate '90s settings as just that. They're spaces for the characters to exist. While the production design is great and the costuming in particular feels really of its time, Cruel Summer avoids the tendency of shows like Stranger Things to use its nostalgia as a crutch. Instead, the '90s period is most useful to help build the central mystery. After all, it's far easier to lose yourself in a missing persons case prior to the internet and cell phones. Speaking of that missing persons case, it's the dark shadow looming over the apparent bright happiness of '93 and '94. Even as Jeanette evolves from nerdy teen to popular hottie, we know something worse is to come. 

With a smart use of VHS and tricksy editing, it's eventually revealed that at some point during '94 Queen Bee Kate Wilson (Olivia Holt) went missing. While we don't know what Jeanette's connection to it is, we do learn her hunky boyfriend in '94 was getting up close and personal with Kate in '93, so is this a case of Single White Female? Her life in '95 facing an unknown criminal trial certainly hints that might be the case. But the truth could likely be far more complex. It's to the show's benefit that Cruel Summer keeps its cards close to its chest as it portrays Jeanette as a struggling teen who's just as lost trying to play popular girl as she is facing down the trial of the year. Aurelia is the beating, throbbing, and furious heart of the show. Her performance is nothing short of brilliant as she navigates three separate timelines and three decidedly different versions of the same character. It's a brave choice to make our protagonist unlikeable and was potentially complicit in an incredibly violent and cruel crime. But it's one that pays off throughout as the show crafts a legitimately complex mystery. 

It makes sense that the show is produced by Jessica Biel who starred in and produced The Sinner. While this is by no means that dark yet, it definitely feels like a teen crime show in a way that's a lot more grounded and psychological than say Pretty Little Lies or 13 Reasons Why. Its puzzlebox format is bolstered by a great supporting cast including Harley Quinn Smith and Allius Barnes who play Jeanette's besties in '93 and ever more bitter ex-friends as the show slips through timelines. Jeanette's dad, Greg, is brought to life with heartbreaking sadness and love by Michael Landes. In a standout moment, Greg's girlfriend Angela (Brooklyn Sudano) counsels Jeanette in a way that we rarely see on TV. Hopefully the show will build on what Sudano brings because it's raw, kind, and real.  And Blake Lee plays an integral but late arrival in new assistant headteacher and obvious creep, Martin Harris. It's his slimy and charming "good guy" who's at the heart of what really happened to Kate Wilson.

The show ends on a huge reveal that feels both shocking and scarily believable. And it sets up a far more interesting conflict than you might be expecting. Rather than suggesting that Jeanette was the cause of Kate's disappearance, we're left with the claim that she was complicit in it. It's a gnarly sort of end, one that throws up questions about our lead and her actions. 

This could very easily be a show about a young woman being held accountable for a terrible act, or it could actually be about why Kate lied to put the spotlight on Jeanette. Either way, Cruel Summer has this reviewer desperate to continue down this delightfully twisted path. 

The Cruel Summer pilot airs on Freeform on April 20th