‘Cruel Summer’ Review: Freeform Drama Tells Haunting Story in 3 Parts

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“Cruel Summer” has set up an intriguing challenge for itself. Each episode of the new Freeform drama series depicts a single day over the course of three years — 1993, 1994 and 1995 — in order to convey the long-tail effects of a kidnapping. It’s both an attention-getting gambit and a limitation: Condensing a story that takes place over two years into three days of action, and finding ways to communicate what happened between the days we see without resorting to pure data-dumps.

While it’s sometimes slightly inelegant, “Cruel Summer” generally manages to pull off that challenge in its first two episodes. That sets the series off to a promising start in part because of the limits producers have imposed on their own storytelling.

In the first episode, directed by Max Winkler with an admirable ability to veer between a trio of distinct tones, we see three versions of June 21 from the perspective of Jeanette Turner (Chiara Aurelia). Jeanette is, first, a cheerfully goofy young woman who is at peace with her relative social isolation. A year later, she has assumed the mantle of popularity, given that her town’s queen bee, Kate Wallis (Olivia Holt) has gone missing. And in the third year of “Cruel Summer,” Kate has returned, and blames Jeanette not merely for profiting off of her absence but indeed prolonging it.

The second episode follows Kate’s story, on June 26 of each of those years, and we watch her before her disappearance, only just after her return, and having been home for about a year. Her story complicates Jeanette’s, but there are intriguing common threads between the two — for instance, the way in which well-liked Kate made outreaches of friendship towards unpopular Jeanette, and the way that the two girls’ downward spirals into rage in the third year we see them rhyme with one another.

The show certainly seems to front-load its intrigue, with episodes following first an alleged accomplice in a kidnapping and then its victim. But given the strong bench of characters (among them Harley Quinn Smith and Allius Barnes as Jeanette’s fellow outcasts and Blake Lee as a creepy educator at Jeanette and Kate’s school), it seems likely that the show will continue to complicate itself as it extends its universe further outwards.

Jessica Biel is among the executive producers here, and the show seems to have taken notes from her series “The Sinner.” Showrunner Tia Napolitano has worked on Shondaland shows including “Scandal” and “Grey’s Anatomy” and ports in a healthy dose of soap, as well. “Cruel Summer” confronts a crime and raises questions of culpability and motive: We don’t know whether or not Jeanette is guilty of what Kate claims, but we believe she might be and we also believe she might have an explanation. This show ages down “The Sinner,” but it’s not kids’ stuff: Both Kate and Jeanette suffer violent abuse that the show has flagged with a content warning and that startled even this somewhat desensitized viewer.

That violence, though — up to and including a black eye after a romantic partner punches Jeanette — stops short of gratuitousness. “Cruel Summer” exists within a heightened reality, one in which many key revelations and events happen over the course of single days. But it also evinces thought and care about how many people connected to a crime might react — and that behavior is often wrongheaded or outright abusive. The abuse here feels like a document of a real, regrettable response to chaos without relishing how, well, cruel reality can be.

Within strictly delineated boundaries, “Cruel Summer” finds a way to tell a story that moves in unexpected directions. Thanks to an agile cast and a willingness to push for the unexpected response, “Cruel Summer” ends up a pleasant surprise: A show with a grabby premise but also a great deal on its mind.

“Cruel Summer” debuts on Freeform Tue., April 20, at 9 p.m.

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