Review: The ‘Cruel Summer’ Pilot Begins a Dark and Twisted Journey [SXSW Online 2021]

Kaity - Co-Director
3 Min Read

Cruel Summer is an absolutely appropriate title for a new mystery thriller heading to Freeform April 20.

Over the course of three summers we get to know Jeanette Turner (Chiara Aurelia), a young girl who has a supportive family, friends who love her, and the world at her fingertips, until everything changes. When a popular girl from school, Kate Wallis (Olivia Holt), goes missing, the town is rattled. However, over the course of the following year Jeanette benefits as she becomes top dog, taking over Kate’s friends and even her boyfriend, Jamie (Froy Guttierrez). Then, after Kate is found, Jeanette’s fantasy world crumbles around her.


The storytelling shifts between years, each starting on Jeanette’s birthday, and it certainly takes a moment to acclimate to the time-hopping style. The first main identifier being the appearance of Jeanette as she morphs from her pre-Kate disappearance self, her Kate 2.0, and then the “present” after Kate is found, but later as you learn more of the story even the friends she’s seen spending her summer vacation with highlight the massive changes in Jeanette from year to year. It can be hard to follow at first but once the story blooms in the second half, it becomes clear which era of Jeanette’s tale we’re seeing.

It leaves you on the edge of your seat until those final moments, but each tiny hint and piece are intricately woven into the plot with a massive “aha” moment coming at the end, but there are still many questions left unanswered for the season to flesh out. There’s thriller and true crime elements woven in, so if you’re a fan of either genre this may be the show for you.

The performances are solid, with all of the actors able to swap between the years with ease. Each of the summers we see have an entirely different version of each character as they navigate the changes they’ve gone through, and every single one of them nail these quick switches to form a seamless picture that highlights the struggles of each of them, even though we may not have even seen them yet.

This story is setting up to be deep dive into the psyche of all of its players, and episode 1 left me wanting to know more about each of them. With so many moving pieces and individual stories to tell, there’s so much to learn and decipher in the coming episodes — and I can’t wait.

Cruel Summer premieres on Freeform April 20.

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By Kaity Co-Director
Kaity started with Harry Potter in second grade and it’s been a losing battle ever since, or maybe a winning one ... She lives in New England with a small herd of cats, two dogs, three chinchillas, and one daughter. You can definitely find her either watching anime, reading manga, or playing the same five video games over and over again. Contact:
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