The Hottest August Review

Life during late stage capitalism is fraught with anxiety and hypocrisy. No one quite knows what the future holds for us, but if the present is any indication, it doesn’t seem promising – unless things start to change very quickly. Global warming, gentrification and a vanishing middle class, among other woes, all lead up to a sense that we’re headed toward a kind of post-apocalyptic Dickensian society.

This is the worldview that powers documentarian Brett Story’s The Hottest August, her follow-up to 2016’s excellent The Prison in Twelve Landscapes. Like her previous film, The Hottest August sets out to create a sociological portrait. In The Prison in Twelve Landscapes, it was the lives of people impacted by mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex. Here, it’s life at the end of capitalism. Story spent August 2017 interviewing everyday people from across New York’s five boroughs, asking them about their current fears and their thoughts about the future. The result is a collage of personalities, backgrounds and anxieties, ranging from natural disasters to economic collapse to fear about just making it through the day.

Story’s subjects include Hurricane Sandy victims still waiting to get their lives back, well-to-do economists, families on welfare, high school students and millennials in their mid-twenties. She goes to a Black Lives Matter rally, to Wall Street and to a neighborhood Zumba class. In each, Story works to include an atmosphere of warmth and humor, even as the film’s overall attitude of anxiety – bolstered by an intense, droning soundtrack – continues to ramp up from scene to scene.

There’s also a fair amount of criticism here. The Hottest August’s stance on our current societal condition can probably best be summed up in two pairs of scenes. In the first, Story shoots a roaring twenties-themed picnic, where attendees of all ages swing dance in pearls and flapper gowns, and dine on Whole Foods. Story switches abruptly to a montage of people in housing court, fighting eviction, while the jazz music from the previous sequence plays over them. In another, the leader of a Black Lives Matter rally yells at white people to wake up and pay attention, followed quickly by a single exterior shot of a suited man in an office building, absentmindedly looking down at them, as an American flag flaps from the window just below him.

The meaning is clear: we’re living in an era of contradictions, where some folks struggle to keep their home, while others get to live it up and play up the aesthetics of a time period that was similarly defined by inequality and teetering on the brink of collapse. Those fighting for change yell for action, while the people who actually hold the power remain not just unwilling to risk their own safety, but uninterested in even thinking about it.

Some of these explorations likely came from a personal place. Story, a Canadian now living in Brooklyn, is herself a gentrifier, a point that comes up when she speaks with two long-time New York residents in a bar. When she mentions where she lives, the men immediately start talking about how much it’s changed, and how many undesirable people used to live there, though, of course, they aren’t racists. The perspective of racism and willful ignorance shows itself again in Story’s conversation with Staten Island residents, who seem like genial, hard-working people, until the subject of institutional racism or illegal immigration comes up.

It’s an intriguing series of portraits. But The Hottest August seems to lack the structure that made Story’s previous work such a standout. Rather than organizing itself into distinct sections, with a clear series of perspectives and points presented, The Hottest August meanders somewhat aimlessly, not unlike a person wandering the city in late summer. It doesn’t seem to have anything specific to say, other than the growing sense that things are pretty bad right now.

Perhaps the problem of The Hottest August is that it doesn’t offer anything other than that statement. There is no counterpoint, no context as to what brought this sense about for Story, or really what she’s hoping to find. The observational elements of The Hottest August are as excellent as anything this extremely promising filmmaker has done, but it’s to an uncertain end. You don’t have to look to hard to point out what’s scary and wrong about the world right now. It’s a greater challenge, but a far worthier one, to look around for solutions.

/Film Rating: 7 out of 10

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About the Author

Abby Olcese is a freelance film critic, proud Midwesterner and pie enthusiast. Find her on twitter at @indieabby88.