USA, 2019, 94 mins, Dir. Brett Story
I watched most of The Hottest August, Toronto-based director Brett Story’s 2019 documentary, with the same kind of clammy-palmed fascination that comes from reading about world-transforming events like the Permian extinction. In August 2017—the summer of the total eclipse—Story and her crew roamed New York City and its outer boroughs, asking people about their hopes and anxieties for the future.
Her subjects are diverse in race, age, and employment: an ironworker, a cleaner, a performance artist with an alter ego named “the Afronaut,” an AI enthusiast, a retired cop, some skateboarding teens, and others. Interspersed with shots of brooding, sweltering urban landscapes, these interviews seem like premature elegies for a society that hasn’t quite tumbled into chaos—yet.
Most people express fear and uncertainty. Many of the older folks dismiss climate change as a cause of their worries, which are generally personal and financial. The young, while mentioning the job market or their anxiety about being able to start a family, seem more clear-eyed about the global nature of the crisis. It’s a gripping, wide-ranging, and surprisingly cohesive portrait of generations under strain.
But The Hottest August’s greatest strength is its visual style: a usually static camera absorbing the queasy agitation of city life under the “new normal.” A woman in 1920s dress dances with her poodle, a man in a welder’s mask peers at the sun, an enormous tropical fish swims in slow circles under a storefront’s neon lights. The Hottest August is both immersed in and distanced from our grim times, transmuting dread into aesthetic pleasure.
The Hottest August airs April 20 on PBS.
More great films directed by women:
Jane Campion's The Piano Kasi Lemmons's Eve's Bayou Greta Gerwig's Lady Bird The Wachowski's Jupiter Ascending Signe Baumane's Rocks in My Pockets Suzan Pitt's Asparagus Cheryl Dunye's The Watermelon Woman