I was in the wrong damn theater. Despite having checked with the SXSW volunteer at the door I was in the wrong theater. The realization hit me the moment they started introducing the film. Dramatic and powerful didn’t sound like words you’d use to describe a documentary about the song “Who Let the Dogs Out?” Then the film started rolling and I was stuck. I’d already ordered food (it was screening at the Alamo) and the aisle was full so I figured it must be fate.
And so here is a review for The Hottest August, a documentary I didn’t mean to see and kind of wish I hadn’t.
The Hottest August
Director: Brett Story
Release Date: N/A
The Hottest August is purportedly a documentary about climate change. Filmed in New York City during the August of 2017, five years after Hurricane Sandy hit the coast and destroyed the city, the film is a series of conversations with New Yorkers in which Story asks the people she meets how they feel about the future. That’s pretty much it. She doesn’t direct the conversations in any way towards her film’s subject matter and basically free flows. Think of the Facebook page Humans of New York but all tied together under the auspices of climate change and the slowly devolving nature of American politics after Trump’s election.
Brett sets her camera up and lets it roll for the most part, allowing it to affect her subjects. In her plethora of shots of the city scattered between interviews people often give the camera weird looks or actively avoid it. We hear her voice multiple times as she interviews people. It’s a documentary where the documenter is allowed to affect the film itself, inserting herself and her camera into the narrative, and as it begins to unfold it feels fresh and honest because of this but everything starts to fall apart pretty quickly.
The big issue is that given this type of filmmaking and Brett’s resistance to directing the conversation in any way it feels like she’s forcing the subject of her film onto those she’s interviewing. As a collection of interviews from people in New York it could be quite interesting, but there’s no thread tying it climate change other than Story popping in to narrate her own opinions a few times. It almost feels like she finished filming and realized no one said what she needed them to for her film so she overlayed her own thinking. Turns out it wasn’t even the hottest August ever.
I get the goal: here’s what life is like in the age of rapid climate change and the era of Trump in one August. But the delivery and execution doesn’t feel like that. It feels like a theme layered over something entirely different. The simply starts dragging even before the halfway point. There’s no drive to it, aimlessly meandering around New York trying to prove a point when there isn’t one. In that sense you could call the film a success; as we’re hurtling towards doom no one fucking cares. But the job of the film is too make us care, and it can’t.