A spiteful lie explodes into a bloodthirsty hunt and a descent into insanity in Cruel Summer (2016), in which a high school senior named Nicholas becomes obsessed with tracking down Danny, an autistic fellow student, after Nicholas's lovesick friend Julia claims that Danny slept with Nicholas's ex-girlfriend. Grasping for some kind of satisfying revenge after his turbulent breakup, Danny enlists Julia (as well as his friend Calvin, who is deceived into thinking that Danny is a pedophile) in his plan to interfere with Danny's camping trip in the woods. As their search for Danny grows closer to the inevitable confrontation, their control on their emotions spirals out into deadly chaos.
The first half of Cruel Summer displays only tentative promise in its execution, with scenes that are often clogged with repetitive nature shots and montages that slow down the plot. While the acting is mostly solid (with standout performances by Danny Miller and Richard Pawulski as Nicholas and Danny, respectively), the reason behind the main characters' vengeful quest initially feels hollow.
The second half of the film, however, is captivating. Without revealing too much of the plot, as one of the main characters slowly reveals his detached yet violent psychological makeup, the conflict between the other two main characters adds a ragged, emotional edge to the plot's increasing intensity. The climactic confrontation between Danny and the group of friends grows more gut-wrenching and savage as the minutes pass, elevated by the collectively strong performance by the primary cast. From the second half until the end, energy and emotion bleed into every scene.
Cruel Summer is a film that will be enjoyed most by fans who love the true crime subgenre of horror, and are willing to invest time in a slow-burning plot.