'The Hottest August': Film Review | True/False 2019

Derek Howard
An ambitious experiment with scattershot results.

Brett Story’s slice-of-life documentary carries a feel-bad warning about the future.

During all of August 2017, Brett Story wandered the five boroughs of New York City asking ordinary people about their lives and their fears for the future, compiling their reactions into a mosaic that blends comments about the climate, the economy and other ominous issues with glancing, crisply shot images. The Hottest August feels like the intellectual, darker side of Humans of New York, although Story — director of the respected documentary The Prison in Twelve Landscapes and the recipient of a Guggenheim award — is clearly aiming for something more experimental and artful than that feel-good video series. The Hottest August is ambitious and carefully thought through, but its scattershot, no-context approach undermines it in the end.

The director seeks out people in working-class neighborhoods, including Brooklyn and Staten Island, who live juxtaposed to cosmopolitan Manhattanites. Specific places and people are not identified, and Story never comments on their responses, leaving it to viewers to piece together a sense of the whole. As the snippets accumulate, the sense of a fractured society fraught with racism and willful ignorance emerges. Deliberately or not, the film posits the idea that Trump country is everywhere.

A middle-aged couple sitting in their driveway become emblematic. The contents of his toolbox are scattered in the garage. She is a fitness instructor who does not look especially fit. "Everybody wants a job but nobody wants to work," he complains. Talking about how the neighborhood has changed, she says, "I’m not a racist." Um-hm. "I just don’t like people who attack other people and do wrong." 

Two men in a sports bar talk about how Brooklyn has changed, complaining that people on welfare keep having kids. "I like to call it resentment instead of racism," one of them says about his attitude.

The director carefully composes images and transitions, often with subtle connections. She moves from the man in the bar to a laundromat, where a television in the background shows news reports about the white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Va. 

She captures a Black Lives Matter demonstration in a park, with both black and white participants, and the rally leader shouting that America should wake up. The next scene is a man observing from a high-rise window above the building’s American flag, then a helicopter taking off, the Statue of Liberty just visible in the distant background.

There are occasional forays into the middle class, including a brief glimpse, with no interview, of a man on his phone outside a midtown Manhattan office building. More often, Story captures people in blue-collar areas. Some of those interview subjects are dangerously uninformed. Two women whose homes were damaged during Hurricane Sandy talk about staying put where they’ve always lived. One of them rolls her eyes as she dismisses the idea of climate change. "That’s Al Gore," she says. "He’s making a ton of money on all of this." She also says that Sandy has been called a hundred-year storm, mistakenly assuming that term means a similar storm can’t happen for another 100 years.

A narrative voiceover starts the film and steps in occasionally to create a poetic tone. To Story’s credit, the voiceover and some elegant images, notably of the solar eclipse that happened that  August, threaten to become precious, yet never cross that line. We have to wait until the end credits to discover the source of what we’re hearing in the narrative, though, which are excerpts from writings by Karl Marx, Annie Dillard and Zadie Smith. Lines from Smith’s climate-change essay, "Elegy for a Country’s Seasons," are heard over an image of a crowded subway car. "People in mourning tend to use euphemism.… The most melancholy of all the euphemisms: 'the new normal.'"

But whenever the film begins to push in a thoughtful direction like that, it quickly drops the idea and moves on. The same is true of its more substantive or optimistic interviews. A young man in an art-filled loft believes that capitalism should be reshaped into what he calls "robot capitalism," in which automation is embraced and the money companies save is used to fund health care and other services. Ownership itself should be more broadly defined he says, heading off the deep end. "We need to own clean air," whatever that means.

As deliberate as Story’s strategy is, the film’s lack of context becomes counterproductive. The Hottest August — we’re told that the month was not among the hottest, although it was especially rainy — spurs us to think hard and make decisions about the future, but fails to offer information to help make informed choices. Falling somewhere between a pretty city-film essay and a call to activism, the film will work best for viewers willing to be immersed in this swirl of New Yorkers without expecting anything truly intellectual in return.

Production companies: Walking Productions, Oh Ratface Films

Director-screenwriter: Brett Story

Producers: Danielle Varga, Brett Story

Director of photography: Derek Howard

Editor: Nels Bangerter

Music: Troy Herion

Sales: Walking Productions

92 minutes

Venue: True/False Film Festival