Freeform’s compelling new series, “Cruel Summer,” captures viewers in its drama, twists and mystery. The intense momentum as the series carries on isn’t stopping. This series tells the chilling story of how a small Texas town got flipped on its head after a bright, popular girl was kidnapped. The story is told through the parallel timelines of its two main characters, Jeanette Turner (Chiara Aurelia) and Kate Wallace (Olivia Holt). Over the course of 1993, 1994 and 1995, their paths cross for the worse when Jeanette is speculated to be involved in Kate’s kidnapping.
Like many shows targeting teen and young adult audiences, “Cruel Summer” sets out to address serious issues plaguing today’s world such as domestic abuse, mental health and grooming. These problems are rooted deep and interwoven in the circumstances surrounding the kidnapping. What this show does right is demonstrated through the technical and acting choices that maintain the severity of the topics discussed in a way that remains artistic and appealing to viewers.
This visual narrative covers over three years in the nineties, but it is told inconsecutively. The show throws the viewer from puzzle piece to puzzle piece, slowly learning how everything connects to the big picture. A production choice such as this sets forth a challenge for the audience who must connect the story, the crime, the characters and the community without all of the details. They only see particular, pivotal days that shift and shape the lives of these girls. This is a limited narrative, yes, but that creates the perfect atmosphere for suspense. Mystery is not only created through the crime itself, but also because the community is truly involved in who knows what and what may have happened to trigger the events that unfolded. This includes the two young girls’ own victimization from domestic abuse and the grooming from the new assistant principal that the other adults neglected.
Some of the stylistic choices that lend themselves most to demonstrating the emotional and mental wear of the kidnapping and lawsuits on the two main characters are the color and costume choices. 1993, the year before the world turned upside down, has a golden hue to it and the characters were fashioned in bright colors to convey their youth and naivety. 1994 evokes a strange, unchartered in between feeling with a pale blue hue that washes out the characters and their former vibrancy. This was the period of time in which Kate had just returned, and the community was dazed, uncertain and in a state of simply existing in this space. The final period of time shown to the viewers is 1995 where everything exists in a near grey scale. The girls donne chopped hairdos and seemingly only have black or dark red available in their wardrobe. This choice echoes their changed lives which have been completely stripped of blissful youth. Additionally, their mental state is reflected in these production choices to ultimately show a near deterioration.
As the two strongest forces to keep this show compelling and propelling forward, Aurelia and Holt took on the mammoth task of essentially creating three different characters in themselves. The story, stretched over the course of three years, displays three versions of Jeanette and Kate to show how the outstanding incident of kidnapping and the influence of their surrounding community dragged both girls from the glow of youthful innocence to walking embodiments of grunge and despair. The changes in character are distinct and abrupt, but not soapy or cheesy. Instead of jarring the audience, the story maintains the effect of portraying just how drastically trauma can change people in such a short amount of time. These actresses demonstrate a powerful range of lighthearted existence that is gradually shattered as the demons in and around them seep out at each of life’s cruel twists. The community that ultimately reacts to their situation deals with their experiences in complicated, cowardly, and harmful ways that poison their young lives. Jeanette and Kate are left with the disaster on their shoulders and the details so skewed, they are incapable of even trusting themselves.
Beautifully tragic, “Cruel Summer” pushes the boundaries every episode with bold and creative choices that leave their mark on audiences. Aurelia, Holt and the remaining ambitious cast have thus far delivered a haunting account of just how deeply the terribly present issues of domestic abuse, mental health and grooming take hold of young lives. Freeform’s new show is fiercely authentic, serving as a wake up call to parents and trusted adults to ensure they’re cultivating a community that will allow their youth to be heard and protected.
Catch ‘Cruel Summer’ on Freeform Tuesdays at 10 p.m or the next day on Hulu.