Cruel Summer, the newest teen drama from Freeform that just finished its first-season run, is a wild ride from the jump. Told across three parallel years, with each episode documenting the same time period over 1993, ‘94, and ‘95, the mystery series follows Jeanette Turner (Chiara Aurelia) as she transitions from a dorky 15-year-old to a confident and popular 16-year-old to a national pariah by 17. During this time, ultra-popular Kate Wallis (Olivia Holt) goes missing for nearly a year. After she’s rescued, she names Jeanette as having an unexpected connection to her captivity, sending shockwaves through their small Texas town.
The series (now available to watch in full on Hulu) is teen drama at its most enjoyable, and a lot of its charm is due Holt’s amazing performance as the complicated, traumatized Kate. Even when we meet her as the queen bee in 1993, Kate is immediately likable. She’s got the all-American look with bright blonde hair and the most fashionable style, and even those who claim to hate her have a hard time articulating why. Though filling an archetype that’s easily villainized or could be played as one-dimensional, Holt gives a performance that renders Kate deeply sympathetic to the audience. Jeanette may be set up as the troubled primary protagonist, but the episodes focusing on Kate end up surprisingly more engaging, not only because of her tragic experience as a survivor but because Holt’s performance is exceptionally layered and intuitive.
As the series develops, and we learn more about Kate’s home life, sympathy continues to grow. The Wallis family is a rich, dysfunctional bunch who work hard to keep up a facade of perfection. Kate seems to be a genuinely nice young girl, struggling to deal with personal issues at home with a mother who refuses to talk about anything. She feels like talking to anyone else would be a betrayal because of the Wallis’ WASP-y mindset of “family business stays in the family.” The loneliness Kate feels due to this leads her straight into the manipulative arms of the young new vice-principal at Skylin High School, Martin Harris.
Holt gives an impactful performance from the moment we first meet Kate, but as Cruel Summer delves into the central grooming and kidnapping plotline, she’s heartbreakingly great. When her mother Joy invites Martin on their annual hunting excursion a few weeks after the two first meet, Kate and Martin bond further. Kate sees Martin as an adult she can finally talk to, but more importantly, one who will listen to her. It’s agonizing to watch her open up to Martin, knowing how he’s manipulating her. Although Jeanette’s role in Kate’s trauma forms the basis of the mystery of Cruel Summer, the depiction of grooming is the most compelling aspect of the series.
When it comes to those difficult scenes, Holt’s performance is incredibly vulnerable and authentic. Here’s a 16-year-old girl who feels like she has no one in her life until a man at least 15 years her senior decides to take an interest in her. Of course she feels special, understood for the first time. Safe. As a young woman just a few years older than Kate, their encounters had me audibly yelling at my TV. Holt’s mannerisms and facial expressions as she starts to trust Martin are so convincing it breaks my heart. To watch this young, troubled girl find a shred of solace in someone so determined to take advantage of her is just utterly painful.
Though the season finale ties up the mystery’s loose ends, it’s the penultimate episode “A Secret of My Own,” that’s the most compelling of the season and solidifies Olivia Holt’s exceptional portrayal. Finally diving into the circumstances of her time in Martin’s home, “A Secret of My Own” gives insight into Kate’s strange behaviors after her rescue and why she’s so determined to protect the exact timeline she shared with the police.
After spending eight out of the season’s ten episodes telling police, her family, and everyone else in her life that she was abducted by Martin, we finally learn the truth about how Kate’s ordeal began. Thinking he was someone she could trust, Kate willingly went to Martin’s home, looking for help. She spends the night, and when she fails to return home the next day and is absent from school, she’s declared missing. At first, Kate tries to leave but once she’s officially a missing person, Martin convinces her that this choice is no longer there—although she won’t realize the extent of that decision for months.
This hour is one of the most affecting episodes of 2021 thus far. Showing the magnitude of just how much power Martin has over Kate, we see them in a “relationship” for the first five or so months of her captivity. Holt shines in this episode, first as a too-trusting 16-year-old who wholeheartedly believes she’s in a consenting relationship, then as a survivor racked with guilt for putting herself in this situation. Of course, she isn’t at fault here, but as a young, traumatized girl she’s terrified of being blamed, and understandably expects few people in her small Texas town to actually get what happened to her. The nuance of Holt’s performance peaks in this episode, and emphasizes why we care so much more about Kate than Jeanette—Jeanette’s choices continue to harm others, but Kate is harmed and betrayed by everyone else. Further, Jeanette’s moody, teenage girl behaviors (like drifting apart from a former friend or lying to her parents without hesitation) are more predictable, and her intensity towards Kate feels unfounded until the final moments of the season.
Throughout the series, Jeanette, Joy, and Martin continually put Kate on a pedestal, seeing her as an object to be manipulated how they see fit. But Olivia Holt brought so much to a role that could have been one-dimensional, leaving us equally starstruck and sympathetic. While Cruel Summer has its foibles, it does do an honorable job tackling grooming in a meaningful way. Especially thanks to a convincing and moving performance from Holt at the center of the series, we can look past the classic teen TV tropes and formulas that Cruel Summer certainly employs, and find genuine moments of poignancy that continue to resonate.
Cruel Summer is currently streaming on Hulu.
Kristen Reid is a culture writer and TV intern for Paste Magazine. She’s been known to spend too much time rewatching her favorite sitcoms, yelling at her friends to watch more TV, and falling in love with fictional characters. You can follow her on Twitter @kreidd for late-night thoughts on whatever she’s bingeing now.
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