What I thought about: Cruel Summer (t/w: grooming)

I don’t think I’ve ever been more shocked, stunned, and disappointed in a season finale cliffhanger than the one in this show. And now you get to watch me review it without spoiling it for you.

How did Kate Wallis end up here? The truth may shock you.

What’s it about?
In 1993, Jeanette Turner is living her best, if slightly nerdy and unpopular, teenage life. By 1995, she’s one of the most hated people in America. What went wrong? We actually find out quite early on: In late 1993 the popular, pretty, and wealthy Kate Wallis goes missing – kidnapped, in fact, by the principal at her school, Martin Harris. When she’s eventually rescued towards the end of 1994, she accuses Jeanette of having seen her chained up in Martin’s basement, locking eyes with her before walking away without alerting anyone.

Each episode in the series looks at a significant event in the characters’ lives which, due to the circumstances, plays out differently in each of 1993, 1994, and 1995. In 1993, Jeanette is on a mission to up her coolness by competing with her friends to complete a list of challenges (mostly petty crimes and pranks). But in 1994, she’s a totally different person, filling the void that the now-kidnapped Kate left behind. Literally – she has Kate’s friends and even her boyfriend. And things are going well. In 1995, however, Kate’s allegations against Jeanette have reverberated around the nation, ruined her relationships with friends and family, leaving her fighting to tell the truth in court.

What do I like about it?
Props have to go to the actors, Chiara Aurelia (Jeanette) and Olivia Holt (Kate) – it must have been challenging to convey three different personalities and they do it so well. You might think Jeanette’s change from nerd to popular girl is a sharp contrast, but if you look closer, you will see that she was developing her confidence in lying early on in 1993, still displays an element of self-doubt in 1994, and only drops her lip quiver in 1995.

I also think the show handles the topic of grooming pretty well, although I’m no medical expert in this area. Kate wasn’t especially vulnerable – she had friends, she was well liked, she even had a boyfriend! And, as the show carefully conveys, the kidnapping wasn’t anywhere near as violent as you might think. All of that culminates in a very disturbing penultimate episode dedicated to the time Kate spent trapped in Martin’s house. I actively squirmed throughout that one.

What do I not like about it?
The timeline can actually be really hard to follow – it often felt like we were really only guided by Jeanette’s completely different hairstyles in each year, and the harshly-done desaturated and darkened filter placed on the 1995 scenes. Even with these, it can be difficult to know where you are – the 1994 scenes include a mix of pre and post-rescue of Kate, and the narrative style shows the same event (and therefore the same setting) happening across three different years.

I am also really fucking disappointed in the ending, but I haven’t worked out if that’s because it’s so good or because I hate the writers for it.

Worth a watch?
It’s a bit of a slog at 10 hours, but if the premise interests you then I think you will find this quite a deep and captivating show. Give it more than the first episode, too, as it starts off slow.

By the way…

  • There are side plots in this show but none of them are particularly relevant, which added to my confusion when watching.
  • Olivia Holt was cast as a replacement for Mika Abdalla. I don’t know why, but Olivia was a great choice so there’s no complaints from me.

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Quickfire round: American Murder: The Family Next Door

Despite its forgettable title (is it American Family: The Murder Nextdoor? Or America Nextdoor: The Family Murder? Neither!) this documentary uses incredible original footage to tell the chilling story of how, and why, Shannan Watts and her two children were cruelly murdered.

One person in this photo escaped death. Can you guess who it was?

I’ll start off by saying that this documentary shows how far we’ve come with technology in our society that it is able to tell the story in such a coherent manner with absolutely no voice-over and only first-hand footage (from police body cams and interview rooms, neighbours, news crews, text messages, and Shannan herself).

This method of telling the story makes it all the more terrifying. We start out with police body cam footage – after Shannan’s friend and colleague called the police, concerned for her whereabouts as she wasn’t responding to texts. The footage – otherwise entirely routine – immediately captures a scene of confusion and mystery as Shannan – and her two young children – are nowhere to be seen. Her phone is there and switched off, but the children’s blankets are gone. Her husband, Chris Watts, raced back from work at a remote oil well, and seems distracted as he speaks to officers about the last time he saw his wife alive and who – or where – she could have gone to.

Incredibly, the documentary also features Shannan herself. She was a prolific Facebook user, recording and posting footage of family moments almost daily. What a juxtaposition these happy videos of her and her husband are to the text messages she was exchanging with her friends and colleagues shortly before her death – telling a story of how her husband had become distant and uninterested in her.

I think I know what makes the documentary so gripping. The Facebook videos and text messages are all pre-death, of course. And the police footage is post-death. We therefore see the story unravel from two perspectives – Shannan’s, as she hurtles towards her murder, and the police, as they piece everything together. Everything is revealed in sync with each other – the text messages become more surreal and desperate as the police interviews become more dramatic and revealing. It’s great storytelling, if incredibly tragic.

If you like true crime, you absolutely don’t want to miss this.

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