At first blush, the brand new Freeform drama Cruel Summer bears greater than a passing similarity to the community’s former crown jewel, Pretty Little Liars. After all, every facilities on youngsters whose small city existences are upended when a preferred lady’s sudden disappearance isn’t what it appears. And by this level, they’re each interval items: While Liars unfolded all through the 2010s, Cruel Summer takes place over three years within the ’90s. But on this story, teen It Girl Kate Wallis (Olivia Holt) quickly reemerges with a surprising declare: She was kidnapped, and her classmate Jeanette Turner (Chiara Aurelia) knowingly let her endure in captivity for months.
The first two episodes coax viewers into the core thriller by specializing in every of the primary ladies’ views, and the pilot is all Jeanette, as we watch her shapeshift over the course of three birthdays in 1993, 1994, and 1995. In 1993, she’s a geeky, smiley 15-year-old who’s woken up by her loving mother and father (Michael Landes and Sarah Drew) and exasperated older brother Derek (Barrett Carnahan). By her candy 16, she’s ditched her frizzy hair and glasses for a She’s All That-style makeover, and rings in her birthday with a preferred boyfriend (Froy Gutierrez) whereas her disgruntled dad waits downstairs. She’s remodeled once more by 17, this time sporting a shaggy haircut whereas her dad yells at her to get up and speak to one in all her attorneys.
Navigating all of Cruel Summer‘s timelines isn’t as tall of an order because it sounds, and never simply because Jeanette’s appears to be like are so totally different in every one. Through her perspective, your complete present appears to be like totally different in every one. The 1993 scenes are shot in a golden, sunny hew, which makes the 1995 timeline’s harsh blue tint all of the extra jarring. When 17-year-old Jeanette’s lawyer Denise (Nicole Bilderback) warns her about her “very tricky case” towards Kate, we don’t know the specifics but, however one look is sufficient to know that carefree lady from ’93 is hardened.
Speaking of ’93 Jeanette, she’s kicking off her birthday by spending it together with her greatest (properly, solely) mates Mallory (Harley Quinn Smith) and Vince (Allius Barnes) on the native mall. They resolve to make a listing of issues to do that summer season, and in a flash of merciless irony, Jeanette balks at her mates’ need to do one thing unlawful (or no less than “immoral”). But whereas her mates sneak off to purchase her a birthday reward, Jeanette is starstruck when she runs into her older classmate Kate. As Jeanette awkwardly introduces herself and blurts out that it’s her birthday, Kate and her mates (Aaliyah Muhammad and Shelby Surdam) don’t tease her such as you would possibly anticipate a preferred highschool character to do. In truth, Kate barely appears to note something about her. Instead, it’s Jeanette whose eyes roam over the opposite lady’s trendy costume and straight, well-coiffed hair. It’s strikingly much like the look Jeanette rocks in ’94, and that’s not all that’s related — Kate’s boyfriend Jamie swoops in for a kiss, and he’s the very same man we noticed Jeanette courting the subsequent summer season.
Even as ’93 Jeanette’s mates reward her with a “You Go Girl” choker (extra on that later), she will be able to’t cease watching Kate and Jamie make out. Cut to ’94, and Jeanette and Jamie are doing the very same factor, earlier than the identical ladies who flocked round Kate the 12 months earlier than beg for particulars about her intercourse life. Then it’s ’95 once more, and Jeanette is watching outdated information broadcasts about Kate’s disappearance when Vince calls to warn her that Jamie is parked outdoors her home once more. “It’s never gonna be normal again, is it?” she asks, to which Vince sighs, “I can’t even remember when it ever was.”
Of course, Jeanette’s case hasn’t simply turned her relationship with Jamie the wrong way up — the fallout has warped her relationships with everybody round her, too. The total Turner household gathers for Jeanette’s birthday dinner in ’93, however by ’95, her father Greg is describing her as “potentially a sociopath” on the native bar. His spouse Cindy is nowhere to be discovered, however he has struck up a relationship with the rather more sympathetic bartender, Angela (Brooklyn Sudano). Meanwhile, Mallory hates Jeanette for leaving her and Vince behind. “The last thing this town needed was another Kate Wallis,” she spits.
It’s a stark distinction to ’93 Jeanette’s tight-knit buddy group, who’ve landed on an unlawful bucket record merchandise: Break into the seemingly empty home her dad simply bought for a superb quaint recreation of hide-and-seek. When it’s Jeanette’s flip to be seeker, she comes throughout an eerie basement wall of mirrors which can be eerily harking back to the collection poster. Startled, she runs upstairs, solely to search out that the home isn’t so empty in any respect. Its new proprietor Martin (Blake Lee) has arrived, and coincidentally, he simply grew to become the brand new assistant principal at Jeanette’s college.
Meanwhile, ’95 Jeanette is assembly with Denise once more. But when Denise worries that the jury received’t discover her likable, Jeanette snaps, “How the hell is the jury supposed to connect with the most hated person in the nation?” In the ’94 timeline, we lastly get context about when she received that popularity within the first place when Kate immediately reappears. It seems she was being held captive by Martin your complete time, in the very same home Jeanette broke into the summer season earlier than. To make issues extra unsettling, Jeanette’s makes an attempt to inform Jamie the information finish with him furiously punching her within the face.
That’s as a result of if Kate is to be believed, Jeanette didn’t simply step into her life when she disappeared — on a TV interview a couple of months after her rescue, Kate tells the world that Jeanette knew the place Kate was for months, however selected to do nothing. As ’95 Jeanette rewatches the interview, she retains rewinding to at least one specific second: Kate trying straight on the digital camera and declaring, “Jeanette Turner, I hope you rot in hell.”
At this level, it’s too quickly to inform if Cruel Summer‘s interwoven narrative approach will build to a satisfying reveal or eventually buckle under its own weight. But its opening hour is a clever take on how our memories are distorted by trauma, bolstered by a promising lead performance from Aurelia. In any case, it’s a beachy thriller with the potential to face out from the pack.
Abby Monteil is a New York-based author. Her work has additionally appeared in The Daily Beast, Insider, Elite Daily, Thrillist, and others.