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‘I had to educate myself on gaslighting’: meet the cast of dark teen drama Cruel Summer

·6 min read

“Sometimes I would be like: where are we? What’s happening? What’s going on? I’m confused. Someone talk to me!” Chiara Aurelia is describing her first major TV role. If it sounds stressful, that’s probably because it was: in Amazon’s new psychological thriller Cruel Summer, the 18-year-old newcomer navigates life – first as a chronically awkward teenager, then as the latest addition to the “popular set” – before being dubbed “the most hated girl in America.”

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Set in 1993, 1994 and 1995, Cruel Summer’s 10 episodes pull the rare trick of skipping between three fully-developed timelines, the mystery and intrigue only increasing with each jolt back or forward. Both moreishly soapy and sufficiently pitch black – think Mean Girls, in the style of Single White Female – the series follows Kate (Olivia Holt), the queen bee high schooler whose life is forever changed when she is abducted by a mysterious assailant. Aurelia plays Jeanette, the good-natured geek who assumes Kate’s social status – and her boyfriend – following her classmate’s disappearance. A year later, Kate is found alive, and publicly denounces Jeanette, whom she alleges knew where she was being held. The timeline then continues, taking in a third act where Kate must come to terms with her trauma, while Jeanette becomes a pariah in their small Texan town, and the nation at large.

Who is telling the truth and who is lying? Even the cast didn’t know until the very end, says Aurelia. “We were obsessed with figuring out the mystery … we would be on the phone together every week trying to talk through it and figure it out, hanging on to every last word from our creators like, okay, you heard this, and I heard that. So if we put that together…?”

Exec produced by Jessica Biel, Cruel Summer has been a huge hit in the US in 2021 – the most-watched series ever on the cable channel Freeform, in fact. It is the kind of show that critics were sufficiently impressed by (Entertainment Weekly called it “addictive and fresh”) but which came into its own as a word-of-mouth hit, with a second series already on the way. It’s easy to see why: as well as that central mystery, the show is tinged with nostalgia, with the Cranberries, INXS and Mazzy Star on the soundtrack; the low-level dread associated with the social hierarchy of high school is present throughout; and there is plenty of throwback makeup on show. (“I didn’t wear that much eyeliner before,” says Holt of her character’s 1995 look; “I did wear that much eyeliner,” admits Aurelia.)

While the 90s setting is also a boon for fans of chokers, Dawson’s Creek-style plaid shirts and creaky instant messenger conversations, it also allows the thriller element to come to the fore. Despite the fact that – shock horror – Aurelia was born in 2002, and 23-year-old Holt in 1997, there was a universality to what their characters experience.

“In 93, I can definitely relate to that kind of awkward, dorky, childlike wonder phase that she’s initially going through,” says Aurelia of Jeanette, who arrives on screen bright-eyed and frizzy-haired, but before long is shoplifting Liz Phair CDs and attempting to rebel. “Then I could relate to wanting to fit in and be cool and date the cute guy, and then to feeling really sad and alone. I think we all can, especially this last year and a half. I think that Covid taught me a lot about spending time with myself”.

Holt, a former Disney star who plays Kate as alternately shiny and plagued by the horrors of captivity, agrees. “I learned a lot about myself in the last year. I think people change year to year, even if we don’t notice it”. Playing characters who are in flux, and often misunderstood by those around them, was something that Holt appreciated. “We’re so quick to judge, and it’s such a bummer … we don’t want to change our opinion about people after those first 15 seconds of meeting them”.

Teen soaps have been increasingly explicit in their handling of tough topics in recent years. HBO’s hit Euphoria, for example, recently dedicated two special episodes to its leads’ drug addictions and trans identity. While Cruel Summer takes a slightly lighter touch, difficult topics are never far from the surface – most notably an abuse of power from an older person, which is handled with care and subtlety.

“I had to do a lot of research and educate myself on manipulation, gaslighting and grooming, and all of these things that are very real and alive,” says Holt. “We didn’t want to glamorise it, we didn’t want to romanticise it, we wanted to really showcase it in a way that was raw and transparent. We’re in 2021, like, let’s get real, let’s actually start talking about these issues”.

As well as cannily balancing past and present, realism and thriller tropes, Cruel Summer’s greatest trick is not making its two young female leads into mere enemies, or polar opposites. “[We had] the opportunity to dive into two drastically different people’s truths,” says Aurelia. “And we discovered that the truth is somewhere in the middle – I mean, it always is. I think it became more of a show about human experience. You’re not just good or bad … in the end, it really isn’t a show about rivalry”.

Cruel Summer is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video from 6 August

Five more teen dramas, from darkest to daftest

Zendaya and Hunter Schafer in Euphoria.
Too cool for school ... Zendaya and Hunter Schafer in Euphoria. Photograph: AP

Euphoria
HBO’s hit drama starring Zendaya and Hunter Schafer grabbed headlines when its second episode featured 30 penises on screen. Thankfully, there was more to this boundary-pushing series, which has dealt with gender, addiction, rape culture and more.

Elite
Netflix’s salacious Spanish series kicked off with a murder, followed by a reverse-chronological journey through class wars, queer romance and Islamphobia. While its four seasons have become increasingly implausible, its high production values cover a multitude of sins.

Gossip Girl
The gamechanging US teen drama mixed serious subject matter, from drugs to bulimia, with a campy conceit (and an ultimately absurd reveal of its titular gossipmonger). A 2021 update, which airs on the BBC in August, offers more diversity – if no more realism.

Pretty Little Liars
If you like your debauchery as pacy and nonsensical as possible, Pretty Little Liars’ seven seasons are for you. An ominous-sounding reboot of the US mystery series is also on the way, following a group of teens “made to pay for the secret sin their parents committed two decades ago”.

Riverdale
We’re not in Euphoria anymore: offering bonkers, parody-verging teen fun based on the Archie comics, Netflix’s series has seen a bear attack, the rise of an organ harvesting cult, and a character fake his own death. Why not … but also why?

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