Dominique Lewis says Summer of ‘84 is an authentic true crime nightmare for its teen protagonists.
The not so sunny Summer of ‘84, directed by François Simard, Anouk Whissell, and Yoann-Karl Whissell and premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. The story written by Matt Leslie and Stephen J. Smith follows pubescent teenager Davey (Graham Verchere) and his group of friends who support him throughout his search to expose a serial killer in their neighborhood. Rich Sommer plays Davey’s dubious and do-good neighbor, Officer Mackey. Each of Davey’s friends has a distinct personality. His closest and most loyal friend is Woody (Caleb Emery), while Eats (Judah Lewis), the most sarcastic and mocking of the bunch, and Farraday (Cory Gruter-Andrew), who’s fearful and indecisive, never hesitate to throw judgment at Davey. The boys live in a safe suburban neighborhood in fictional Cape May, Oregon. The Pacific Northwest is the perfect background for a serial killer. The setting may be inspired by several true crimes and notorious serial killers active during the 1970s and 1980s.
The film is a raw and bleak portrayal of an idyllic time when safe neighborhoods were revealed as breeding grounds for child murders and depraved acts of violence. Yoann-Karl Whissell had this to say in an interview with Bad Feeling Magazine about the film’s harrowing ending, “This is real life, there are real consequences, and not a lot of movies explore real consequences. You have kids, or even adults, living through very traumatic events, but by the end of the film, they’re OK, and life is not like that. A traumatic event will stay with you for a very, very long time. For us, it always needed to go that dark for it to work. It’s a metaphor for growing up, and growing up sucks.”
The film begins in a reflective tone as Davey bikes through his neighborhood distributing mail while a monologue narrates his mistrusting thoughts about his poised neighbors. His suspicion builds as well-trusted Officer Mackey, with no children of his own, frequently runs into Davey and requests his help to move furniture and perform other tasks. Once inside Mackey’s home, Davey’s curiosity about him builds when he notices a small door in the basement with a padlock on it. After he notices a milk carton with the picture of a missing child on it, he recalls seeing the boy in Officer Mackey’s home. Davey presents his conspiracy theory about Mackey being the Cape May Slayer to his friends, who don’t believe it possible. Davey’s persistence and debatable evidence embroil the group in a full-on investigation.
“Just past the manicured lawns and friendly waves, inside any house, even the one next door, anything could be happening, and you’d never know.”
The suspenseful expedition begins as Davey and his friends stalk, map out, and communicate all the details of Officer Mackey’s day-to-day activities to catch him in the act. When Mackey is seen dumping a heavy trash bag, digging deep holes, and possessing axes, shovels, and tons of dirt, the group begins to believe that Davey’s suspicions about his identity are true. They find odor-eliminating chemicals for what they assume are decaying bodies. With too little evidence to bring their suspicions to authorities, Davey hatches the ultimate plan to apprehend Officer Mackey.
Sommer is outstanding in his role as Officer Mackey. His friendly yet imposing presence as a man in a position of authority is flawless. He plays the perfect meek neighbor, casually gardening and cleaning up his home while secretly jogging to a hidden storage unit filled with suspicious items. Sommer also plays many “good guy” roles, and despite being the perfect serial killer stereotype, you root for the teens to be wrong about Officer Mackey.
The costuming makes the film’s setting feel authentic. The boy’s outfits reflect the fashions of the 1980s. From plaid shirts and denim or leather jackets to the hairstyles, you never doubt the era the film takes place in. The editing of subtle scenes of family struggles and a lack of parental support was vital in depicting that teens who don’t grow up in loving homes will search for comfort anywhere they can find it. The scenes are short but make an accurate impression, signifying that polished suburban neighborhoods often hide dark secrets. While riding his bicycle in the film’s opening, Davey states, “Just past the manicured lawns and friendly waves, inside any house, even the one next door, anything could be happening, and you’d never know.”
While the premise is simple, the film is a true-crime mystery; that’s an enjoyable “PG-13 horror” watch. The more gruesome scenes are brief and not overly gory. The build-up throughout the film provides a great deal of suspense and curveballs, making the conclusion unexpected. Davey and his friends’ journey throughout the film and their friendship is the natural focal point. The film’s ending is also genuine, demonstrating the impact its events have on the mental state of a young teenager and highlighting that things don’t always end with the outcome we want.
Summer of '84 is now streaming on Shudder.