Cruel Summer, released in April 2021 on Freeform (a cable network owned by ABC Family, but I watched it on Hulu), is a 10-episode show, with 40-ish minutes per episode, and I binged it faster than any show in years. It kept me that engaged and guessing.
The teen drama follows two girls in particular, Jeanette Turner (played by Chiara Aurelia) and Kate Wallis (played by Olivia Holt), who live in the small town of Skylin, Texas. Jeanette is the classic nerdy girl who wants to be popular and Kate is the popular girl. Everything flips, literally, when Kate is kidnapped and Jeanette blossoms into the popular girl.
Kate is rescued from her kidnapper and then actually blames Jeanette for prolonging her horrors because she asserts that Jeanette was in the house and saw Kate, but said nothing. That makes Jeanette the “most hated girl in America.”
That teen drama would probably keep my attention as is because I have an overriding desire to need to know whodunit and unravel the mystery. Thus, I kept binging.
However, the presentation of the unraveling is brilliantly done, as the show focuses on the years 1993, 1994 and 1995 and cuts between those years to show similarities and mostly, contrasts, sometimes even within the same scene. I think it’s a brilliant way to show just how much teenagers between the ages of 14 and 18 can change even within one year. How friendships can evolve or dissolve. How attitudes and relationships with parents can change. And how someone you thought you knew can suddenly become unrecognizable.
I thought both Holt and Aurelia nailed the changes from one year to the next to the next. First, Aurelia plays the timid, innocent and nerdy character of Jeanette to perfection in 1993, then switches to the popular girl in 1994, and then to the the “most hated girl in America” persona in 1995, where she’s mad at the world. Being able to float between all three of those characters, who are the same person, is incredible.
The same is true of Holt, who goes from being the tightly controlled (by her mom, Joy (played by Andrea Anders) rich, popular girl in 1993, to the freshly kidnapped but defiant girl in 1994, to trying to rediscover who she is in 1995. Holt, who also has a background in singing, performs some of the music to go along with her scenes. What a virtuoso!
From the beginning, I didn’t think Jeanette actually saw Kate. I thought there had to be more to the story. And that Jeanette had been “tarred and feather” unfairly. That her only “crime” was her typical teenager desire to be popular and to be liked. But, even 1993 Jeannette was a little creepy with how she seemed to idolize Kate and then romantically be interested in Kate’s boyfriend, Jamie (played by Froy Gutierrez). I should have picked up on that better.
Again, it’s amazing how much can change in a short period of time in a teenager’s life. Even the opening sequence, where Jeanette’s family has a tradition of waking her up on her birthday, so we see each birthday from 1993, to 1994 and then 1995, is so well-done to show us, “Holy heck, what happened?” Because in 1994, she’s suddenly not the nerdy girl and has a boy in her room. Then in 1995, her dad is angrily waking her up to tell her that her lawyer is here. Lawyer for what?!
And the changes in the years aren’t just pulled off with the great work from Holt and Aurelia, but also the cinematography and costuming. For example, 1993 Jeanette has curly hair, glasses and braces and dresses more conservatively. By 1994, she’s lost the glasses and braces, and dresses like a conventional popular girl might, for lack of a better word. And by 1995, she’s cut her hair and is dressing even more conservatively. Similarly, Kate goes from conventional rich popular girl attire with her hair stylized in 1993 to her hair straight and dyed in 1994 to being more of a punk rock look in 1995.
On the cinematography front, 1993 is colorful and has an air of innocence to it. That early 1990s look before grunge really hit. Then in 1994, it has more of that grunge twinge to it, and by 1995, all the scenes are muted, gray colors to show that the world has been turned upside down for all the characters involved. It’s smart and helpful with the switches.
However, even as early as 1993, you could see the cracks in Jeanette’s character, or perhaps the preludes to who she would become in 1994. Her and her two friends, Mallory (played by Harley Quinn Smith) and Vince (played by Allius Barnes), create a list of bad things to accomplish before summer’s end. Basically, things like shoplifting and pranks. Mallory is a bad influence on Jeanette! Once Jeanette gets the bug of getting away with something (and her dad, Greg (played by Michael Landes) also enables it to some extent by refusing to see what’s happening), she becomes addicted to it.
That’s how we get the set-up of Kate thinking Jeanette saw her at her abductor’s house. Her abductor is the local assistant principal, Martin Harris (played by Blake Lee), and Jeanette is able to get a key to his house because her dad, a relator, recently sold the house to him. She gets a thrill by sneaking into Harris’ house. The question becomes, did she do it more than once (she initially claims she never went more than once) and if so, did she see Kate, as Kate claims?
Something that became curious to me and began penetrating my, “Jeanette is innocent,” veneer, was when Kate was “rescued” in 1994, and upon hearing the news, Jeanette’s first reaction was, “Is she dead? Who did it?” That’s a weird reaction and to me, read like the mind of someone guilty or perhaps … hoping the kidnapper had killed Kate. But still, I was holding onto Jeanette ultimately be exonerated in the court of public opinion.
One of the dumbest things Jeanette does is after Kate is found, the police want to talk to her. She think it’s no big deal to talk to the police. Do not talk to the police without a lawyer. Do not talk to the police without a lawyer. Do. Not. Talk. To. The Police. Without. A. Lawyer. Especially as a minor! And her parents never should have allowed it.
Thing is, even if it was established early on that Jeanette did see Kate, what would the charge be exactly? I don’t know what Texas law would say about that. Surely not aiding and abetting? Or failure to report? Or something like that? I don’t know.
Both moms are terrible in this. I grew slightly more sympathetic to each later on (one less so than the other), but still. Kate’s mom, Joy, almost comes across like Kate’s “kidnapper” before she actually gets kidnapped, which Kate sort of alludes to later. She tightly controls everything Kate does and is verbally brutal about it. When Kate suspects her stepdad of cheating, it turns out it was her mother that was cheating. When she confronts Joy about it, Joy gaslights her and then slaps her. That’s what causes Kate to run into the arms of Martin (more on that later).
Meanwhile, Cindy Turner (played by Sarah Drew), Jeanette’s mother, also fails Jeanette in her moment of need in 1993. Jeanette wants to be beautiful and popular and she brings that desire to her mother. Instead of telling Jeanette a more positive message that popularity isn’t everything and she’s already beautiful as she is, Cindy instead tells her about how popular she was as a teenager and that one day, Jeanette will get there, too. Again, to be fair, Cindy later shows some retrospection about her failure here, so I appreciate that, but jeez.
And Joy sort of redeems herself by emotionally telling Kate that she would do anything to protect her child. It’s just, she’s gone the worst way about doing that, like making Kate think someone had taped a paper that said, “Liar!” to their front door.
One of my favorite subtle characters in the series was Derek Turner (played by Barrett Carnahan), Jeanette’s older brother. He was always by her side throughout 1993, 1994 and 1995 and tries to give her good advice. He’s also the classic brother who, when Jamie punches her in the face (after Kate’s revelation), he wants to beat up Jamie.
So, Martin Harris. He worms his way into the rich family (they’re rich because the stepdad, Rod (played by Ben Cain) is a former professional football player) and to Kate. He begins positioning himself as the only person Kate can confide in, as her world begins crumbling around her. It’s grooming. He’s grooming her. It’s sick and hard to watch. He grooms her to such an extent that Kate first, thinks of him as a good friend, and then falls in love with him. She’s lived her entire life not wanting to disappoint anyone and she doesn’t want to disappoint him either. That’s also a classic of the pedophile mentality: They rationalize that it was the kid who came on to them and not the other way around. But again, he’s been grooming her to get to that point for a good year. As Kate’s therapist later said, “Groomers pose as saviors when really, they are the predators.” That’s so powerful.
I should note that throughout the series, the showrunners are responsible by ending each show with some sort of message and resources for domestic violence, rape and suicide.
As mentioned, after the fight with her mother, Kate runs into the waiting arms of Martin. (Earlier that night, he’d given her a ride home, but Kate was with a drunk Jamie; what happened to Jamie?!) That’s when we get the next big revelation: Kate wasn’t always held captive in Martin’s basement. They were openly (within the house) in a “relationship” for the first 100-something days she was missing. She thought she was in love with him and of course, he enabled it and played upon it. At some point, when Kate is ready to get out of that bubble, return to her life, Martin realizes he can’t let her leave and keeps her captive in the basement. However, the whole episode where we see them being a “couple” is incredibly hard to watch. It’s disgusting. Harris is a predator. As the therapist said, once he can no longer find ways to manipulate her, he turns to keeping her captive.
That’s when we also learn that Jeanette did come to the house when Kate was there, but never actually made eye contact with her, as Kate claimed. Instead, it turned out that Kate, who in a twist would befriend Mallory (and as much crap as I gave Mallory rightly for being a corrupting influence on Jeanette, she’s actually a good influence for Kate, helping her get back on her feet), saw Mallory. Mallory was the one who sat Kate inside Harris’ house and never said anything about it.
My issue there is, why was Kate so upset about that? At that point in the saga, she was not yet “captive” in Harris’ house. She was still able, with Harris gone, to walk outside the door and go home. That’s one of the parts of the series I didn’t quite get. Why was she so upset with Jeanette, the person she thought saw her and didn’t help her? Maybe because, as Kate’s therapist later said, she was hoping to be caught to be forced out of that “relationship” with Martin?
Another thematically intriguing aspect of the show is that both families try to maintain some semblance of their family traditions through the years despite the changes. For example, Kate’s family still goes Skeet shooting and does a camp-out. I thought that was odd. Kate’s been through something traumatic, let’s dial it back.
Aside from the moms, there are three other characters I despise. First, is Jamie for hitting Jeanette. But also, he later gaslights the heck out of Kate and it was gross to watch. She witnessed Jamie kissing Jeanette (after Kate had been rescued) and he lies about it to her. Second, are the two girls who are Kate’s closest friends, then become Jeanette’s and then go back to being Kate’s. They are the definition of high school mean girls, who are fickle and go with the way wind blows. They had no idea how to actually be there for Kate.
Speaking of gaslighting, to Cindy’s credit, she does begin to see that something is amiss with Jeanette. She finds the key to Harris’ house, but Greg won’t believe it. Greg also laughs in her face about Cindy’s dreams to be a flight attendant. Greg was a bit of a dunce and a jerk, in my opinion. I get protecting your daughter, but he was doing more harm than good by refusing to believe what was right in front of him. And Cindy’s point about being so alone with what she knew the truth to be because he wouldn’t accept it and deal with it together and that was crushing her, was so poignant.
On the other hand, one of my favorite characters throughout the series was Vince. He was always loyal and a good friend to Jeanette and still a good friend to Mallory, too. Meanwhile, he was also dealing with being a black gay teen in the early 1990s in Texas. He formed a relationship with Ben (played by Nathanial Ashton), who is Jamie’s best friend and football player. They are both “closeted.” To Jeanette’s credit, when she learned Vince was gay, she was supportive. But something else I didn’t get is that we later learn that Ben’s football career was ruined by Jamie drunk driving and crashing with Ben inside. When Ben is about to be taken to the hospital, Vince comes up to him and briefly holds his hand. They ruptured after that and Ben later tells Vince something like how he ruined his life. He also blames Jeanette. But why?! I don’t think anyone even saw Vince and Ben holding hands momentarily. And what does Jeanette have to do with it? It was all Jamie’s fault for drunk driving! Thankfully, they later seem to tentatively reconcile.
Another favorite character of mine was Kate’s step sister, who at first was a bit of jerk (for good reason, to be fair) toward Kate and Joy, but then over time, wanted to be there for Kate after her rescue, so she takes up chatting with her on the nascent internet in a chatroom. Kate doesn’t know it’s her stepsister, though. She’s still trying to find someone she’s able to confide in. That ends up being Kate’s “undoing,” but more on that later.
Rod, the stepdad, is also a good character. He is hard on himself, as he didn’t do anything when Joy slapped Kate and told her off. He blames himself for not stepping up and acting like Kate’s father. I appreciated his honesty about that. He’s trying.
During Kate’s therapy, we begin learning about someone named Annabelle. My initial theory was that Annabelle was the alternate persona that Kate came up with to disassociate herself from the fact of Harris raping her. I was wrong about that. It turned out that Annabelle was the name of Harris’ old gun, the same gun his mother used to commit suicide.
The media narrative was that Harris died in a police shoot-out during Kate’s rescue. Nope. Harris was going to kill himself because he said the police came to the house, but couldn’t bring himself to do it. Why were the police turned on to him to begin with? Why were they suspecting Harris? We know pretty much nothing about the police investigation into Kate’s abduction other than the initial interviews with Jeanette and that they weren’t going to charge her (this is what led to Kate telling national news that Jeanette saw her).
He drops the gun and turns away. Kate picks it up and shoots him, killing him. She talks about how guilty she felt for both loving him and hating him. That was rough. Victimization in that way, coming off of grooming, is so hard to disentangle and deal with. She also, again, blames her mother, saying she basically “teed” Harris up. She was “ripe” for the taking to fall into his arms.
They play the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Disarm” through the shooting scene, with the lyrics, “The killer in me is the killer in you.”
When Jeanette learns through the internet chatroom transcripts (her brother is sleeping with Kate’s stepsister and retrieves the logs) that Kate went to Harris’ house “willingly,” she said that “changes everything.” No, it doesn’t! I mean, Jeanette is suing Kate for defamation, so in a legal sense, I guess. But that Kate went there willingly only reflects the grooming Harris had done.
Due to a recommendation for her therapist to walk back through the house, Kate realizes what Anabelle meant and she does the walk-through (for some reason) with Jeanette, who reveals it was Mallory who saw her. Everyone involved drops the lawsuit business.
It was also rather unfortunate that Jeanette toward the end of the series went back to Jamie despite the domestic violence.
We also never got any closure between Jeanette and her mother.
Anyhow, let me stop procrastinating. The last 90-some seconds of the 10-episode series, we see Jeanette back inside the house in 1994, and she’s about to open the basement door when she hears Kate calling for help. Kate explicitly says, “It’s Kate Wallis,” and instead of helping, Jeanette does nothing but gaze on the door with a devilish, creepy grin.
So, in other words, after nearly 10 episodes of believing Jeanette had been innocently railroaded by the media, Jeanette was a creepy little freak all along, who did try to become Kate (and succeeded) in the wake of Kate’s abduction. Gah. All to be popular! Popularity is a helluva drug.
There’s a second season coming and I don’t know how they will pull that off or what will happen and if it will have the same jumps between years, but I would certainly be interested to see more.
Overall, I highly recommend this series. Yes, it’s binge-worthy mystery you want to unravel and figure out the “whodunit” or perhaps, who didn’t do it, but also, it’s a complicated, difficult-to-watch character study in both someone sexually abused as Kate was, and in someone (we think initially) was railroaded by the media. And overall, a character study in how hard it is to be a teenager and to navigate those unfamiliar waters on the precipice of adulthood.