THE HOTTEST AUGUST – Review by Diane Carson

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The Hottest August listens to ordinary New Yorkers.

Director Brett Story realizes that ordinary individuals regularly offer revealing, poignant comments about today’s issues, including politics and climate change. And so, in 2017, for a month, during what was billed as the hottest New York City August on record, she asked an eclectic assortment of men and women one question, “What are your hopes for the future?”

At the 2019 True/False Film Festival in Columbia, Missouri, where I first saw The Hottest August, producer/director Story said that, coming from issue-based films, she finds too many traditional works don’t ask us “to think across the fabric of life.” She argues that we and our problems are not isolated. To prove that, in The Hottest August, she focuses on recurring topics; notably, work prospects, debt, the climate, racism, and xenophobia, among other familiar challenges. These citizens from across the five New York boroughs express shared anxiety, though all do not espouse progressive ideas. They do say what’s on their minds with the film offering no explicit judgment.

We observe and draw our own conclusions, though, of course, some excerpts present provocative observations. Racism is confronted, economic inequity considered, several subjects dance, others deplore conditions. In one example that resonates today, a middle-aged man and a woman sit outside their garage, tools casually strewn about. He says, “Everybody wants a job, but nobody wants to work.” The situation has dramatically changed, as we all too painfully know.

Inspired by French director Chris Marker’s 1963 Le Joli Mai in which Marker interviewed Parisians shortly after the Algerian War, director/producer Story adds philosophical thoughts for contemplation through periodic voiceover excerpts from Karl Marx, Annie Dillard, and Zadie Smith. Derek Howard’s cinematography highlights the mundane beauty of the beach, a sports bar, a laundromat, a subway car, and other working class locations as well as New Yorkers mesmerized by the solar eclipse. Troy Herion’s score adds an atmospheric but unobtrusive element.

The takeaway is, as Story said at True/False, that her interviewees clearly felt less and less part of a society with control. Fast forward to today’s pandemic to confirm Story’s prescience. The Hottest August is available for streaming through April 16 via Grasshopper Films’ website. April 16, The Hottest August will air on PBS.

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Diane Carson

Diane Carson, Ph.D., Professor Emerita, has reviewed films for over 25 years and has covered the Cannes, Telluride, Toronto, Palm Springs, and Sundance festivals. She writes for KDHX, 88.1 FM. St. Louis’ community radio. One of the founders of the St. Louis International Film Festival, she continues to serve on juries. A past president of the University Film and Video Association, she taught film studies and production at St. Louis Community College and at Webster University. Her new book, written with two colleagues, is “Appetites and Anxieties: Food, Film, and the Politics of Representation,” Wayne State U. Press, 2014.