Authentic or Aggrandized?: A Review of Amazon Prime's "Cruel Summer"
By Gabriella Bosticco
I’m always wary whenever there’s new media about anything surrounding assault or domestic violence. Still, Amazon Prime's Cruel Summer manages to tell a story full of plot twists and suspense without sensationalising the harrowing topics it covers.
Cruel Summer is the story of Kate, a popular girl who has just been missing for months, just after she has been rescued. Kate claims that Jeanette, a nerdy wannabe from her high school, saw her while she was being held captive, and did nothing to save her.
The show follows the subsequent defamation case. Each episode tells the events of the period in three consecutive summers, 1993, 1994, and 1995, alternating between Kate’s perspective and Jeanette’s.
Stylistically, this show is beautiful. Between the use of colour to differentiate the years, the compelling cast, and the soundtrack that left me nostalgic for a time I wasn’t even alive,
What really makes Cruel Summer stand out to me is its exploration of not only the self-blame involved in surviving domestic violence, but the loneliness of having experienced things nobody around you can understand.
Untruths from both characters leave you wondering who speaks the truth on this particular issue until the very end. Despite the fact that she is inherently unlikeable, Jeanette's story is so compelling that you can't help but root for her at times, and Kate's
I sincerely hope that season two, coming this summer, manages to hook me as much as the first season did.
I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who struggles with depictions of grooming, domestic violence, and victim blaming, but to people who have an interest in how these things can be explored in media.
*There will be spoilers below this line. Cruel Summer is the kind of show when knowing what’s to come will definitely make it less enjoyable, but I couldn’t review it without exploring a few specific plot points.*
A lot of the reviews I've seen claim that it lacks substance, but I disagree. In the context of hundreds of portrayals of domestic violence and kidnapping that damage real-life survivors by amping up the drama and using trauma as only a plot point, Cruel Summer is an incredibly human story.
When it’s revealed that Kate initially chose to go to Martin's house willingly, a hole in Kate's story, I was worried that Kate would be painted as the bad guy. However, the subsequent episode exploring the unhealthy dynamics of their relationship ensures that the audience sees the difference between true consent and coercion.
While the answer to the too-often-asked question 'why did she stay?' is different for everyone, Cruel Summer makes sure that the audience well and truly understands the complex combination of reasons that lead Kate to originally stay.
The show also explores many forms of gaslighting that are normalised in everyday culture. By contrasting the insidiousness of Martin’s manipulation with the lesser but still very apparent damage of Jamie’s lies about cheating, to then her mother's lies about her own affair, the audience can easily understand why Kate doesn't trust her own judgment.
As a survivor, it was great to see how many different aspects of a victim's life can combine to prevent them from even questioning abuse when it appears, without the feeling of a forced 'tragic backstory'.
Finally, to see Jamie take accountability for his manipulation of Kate and tell her the truth was wonderful. Watching Kate realise that she was right was one of the many scenes that made me tear up, and it does every time.
Having rewatched Cruel Summer about five times now, I’ve still not fully processed the ending. It happened so quickly and was such an unexpected last-minute twist that it ensured the show truly had a lasting impact.
Overall, I think that Cruel Summer is an incredibly genuine show that deserves more credit for not only the way that it represents survivors and their experiences but the way that it guides the audience through understanding grooming without leaving room for victim blaming, while still being thoroughly entertaining.
In-depth trigger warnings:
In episode one, the protagonist is punched in the face by her boyfriend without warning.