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Cruel Summer Review: Olivia Holt and Chiara Aurelia Anchor Freeform's Addictive Teen Mystery

Even when it verges into camp territory, it's worth sticking with

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Allison Picurro

In one episode of Cruel Summer, Jeannette (Chiara Aurelia) mutters, with the utmost sincerity, "I miss the days when no one wanted me dead." That's as good a way as any to set the tone for Freeform's teen mystery, a show with an intriguing premise that, even in its most ridiculous moments, is hard to look away from.

Cruel Summer, premiering April 20 on Freeform, centers around two teenage girls, awkward nerd Jeannette and rich, popular Kate (Olivia Holt). It chronicles the events of three consecutive summers — 1993, 1994, and 1995 — and, in its first episode, bounces between its timelines with an almost surprising deftness: In 1993, Kate suddenly vanishes, much to the confusion and devastation of their small Texan town. 

A year later, Jeannette, shy no more, has assumed the mantle of coolest girl in school by taking over the persona Kate left behind, adopting Kate's two best friends as her own, and even dating Kate's boyfriend. One year after that, Jeannette's alleged role in Kate's disappearance -- one that she vehemently denies -- gradually turns her into, as the show says, the most hated person in America. Their social circle, and the social circles of their parents, are divided up into those who believe Jeannette and those who don't. As the episodes roll on, we, and everyone in town, are left trying to figure out what the truth is. Needless to say, revelations that I can't talk about here come swiftly, and Cruel Summer relentlessly plays with the idea of honestly and allegations with both its characters and the viewers.

Multiple timelines can be difficult for one show to juggle elegantly, but Cruel Summer's first episode is an example of how to do it well. It cycles between its three years pretty seamlessly, changing the color balance to set the tone and giving all the characters different haircuts to signify that time has passed. While the show sets up a lot in its first episode — so much that later episodes almost feel devoid of action compared to it — it keeps you hooked, and Jeannette and Kate are strong enough as narrative foils to make it work.

Chiara Aurelia and Olivia Holt, Cruel Summer

Chiara Aurelia and Olivia Holt, Cruel Summer

Freeform/Bill Matlock

In fact, Cruel Summer works best when it focuses on them. The show rightfully makes it clear just how hard it is to be a teen girl. Jeannette and Kate wrestle with the issues their mothers have instilled in them, with the pressures the world naturally thrusts upon young women, and what happens when women are at the center of crime cases — when Jeannette's family's car is graffitied in the wake of Kate's disappearance, she notes that the criticism she's receiving is rooted in misogyny. None of the other characters come alive quite as much as the two centerpieces, and even when the writing verges into camp territory, Aurelia and Holt make it work in their performances.

The show isn't exactly subtle, especially when it hits the audience over the head with '90s references (things like dial-up internet, chokers, heavy use of "Zombie" by the Cranberries are ubiquitous) but it also doesn't glamorize Kate's kidnapping, or the legal battle that erupts between her family and Jeannette's in its wake. Cruel Summer actually seems like it wants to say something about the ways trauma can seep into every area of someone's life, and the ways that media and public opinion can turn awful crimes into sensationalist cultural moments. Whether or not it succeeds at providing the necessary nuanced commentary such a heavy subject requires has yet to be seen, but even so, Cruel Summer is an addictive mystery that's worth trying to solve.

TV Guide rating: 3.5/5

Cruel Summer premieres Tuesday, April 20 on Freeform at 9/8c with back-to-back episodes.