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The future, or its uncertainty, drives Brett Story’s The Hottest August, which plays June 16 as part of BAMCinemaFest. But it is encroachment, or the fear of it, which animates the documentary. In August of 2017 (not the hottest August on record, but certainly sweltering, and warmer still the following year), Story took to the streets of New York to ask residents about their hopes for the future. The consensus is bleak. Almost every interaction yields some suspicion of growing scarcity, whether of jobs or resources or space. A few people speculate as to how these pitfalls might be avoided. Some cling faithfully to pillars of American dogma: capitalism and the promise of class mobility. But a significant handful have woven a bogeyman out of their troubles, and what emerges is a perceptive portrait of a nation’s psychology.
Story uses voiceover — excerpts from Zadie Smith, Karl Marx, and Annie Dillard, all read by actress Clare Coulter — to communicate broad unspoken anxieties. The real horror is climate change, a thinly concealed specter haunting every frame. Most of her subjects do not mention it at all, or else reveal themselves to be staggeringly misinformed (if not willfully ignorant) about the world crumbling around them. There’s something like madness in their defiance. The film becomes a sophisticated exercise in science horror. There’s an intricate sensory layer to the storytelling that evokes the rainy summer and its flitting breezes, a creeping shadow of the uncanny cast over its beauty.
Unlike the Canadian filmmaker’s award-winning feature The Prison in Twelve Landscapes, a comprehensive look at the prison-industrial complex, there’s an element of leisure to The Hottest August. It’s meticulously choreographed, although it sometimes feels longer than its 94 minutes, mainly because it’s already clear in the first half hour where it’s headed. Early on we meet a middle-aged couple, proud Italian Americans who are hesitant to identify as working-class. She’s a fitness instructor, a local of the neighborhood, and he was born in Sicily. “A lot of different ethnic groups have come into the neighborhood,” she says. Now she gets “a little freaked out” walking around the area, although she and her husband insist they aren’t racist.
Such testimonies come to define the film. Later, Story interviews two white men, former cops, perched in a bar in Staten Island. When she tells them she lives in Crown Heights, they scoff. One of them explains that he used to patrol that area in the ‘70s, “and there were no people like you there.” When Story asks if he means white people, his companion all but confirms: “Not of your caliber, put it that way.” One of these men suggests that “resentment,” rather than racism, might be a more accurate way to describe these divisions. In truth, Staten Island — a famously overlooked borough with the city’s lowest percentage of Black residents — has garnered an informal reputation for being so racially insulated as to be hostile, even dangerous, for people “not like” Story.
But ultimately there’s something conventional about how these conversations are shaped around blue-collar communities, especially where it concerns racism and xenophobia. Certainly the working class are more likely to feel the world closing in on them, and more urgently. But a significant dimension of the commentary feels muted. Brief excursions into Manhattan’s artfully decorated apartments and sleek offices establish a familiar distance. Theirs is a life remote from the two neighbors still reeling from the wreckage of Hurricane Sandy, or the women lamenting the effects of gentrification on a sidewalk in what could be almost anywhere in the city. The film is better at articulating pathos, if sometimes too simplistically.
The Hottest August accomplishes much more complexity in its visuals than in its arguments, with Story’s striking compositions and Nels Bangerter’s precise editing. A Black Lives Matter rally sees mostly white hands rise in the air as they chant “Hands up! Don’t Shoot!” A man in a spacesuit strolling through public sprinklers communicates the film’s tone more indelibly than any dialogue ever could. Importantly, Story does not traffic in unearned optimism, and by the end, we arrive at no answers. The film embraces the reality of the moment and the people who live in it, even if those people won’t.
Correction: A previous version of this post had listed The Hottest August‘s premiere as June 17. The correct date is June 16. We regret the error.