It’s a big year for coming-of-age flicks, with the Arkansas-set Mud (starring Matthew McConaughey, in the running for an Oscar nom) and The Way Way Back both drawing critical acclaim. By contrast, The Kings of Summer doesn’t really aspire to much — it’s an extremely simple story, with a lot of funny moments, but it’s missing a payoff.
Hey Joe, did you know we have been walking for half a mile? I can tell by how much we’ve bonded.
The Kings of Summer is the kind of quirky, low-budget indie that always does extremely well on the festival circuit — the debut feature from director Jordan Vogt-Roberts was nominated for the grand jury prize at Sundance, and at first glance it’s easy to see why. Kings sports a cast full of cult favorites (Nick Offerman, Megan Mullally, Alison Brie) and a hooky story: teenage best friends, Joe and Patrick, aspire to build a house in the woods and live there forever, away from their parents, doing manly things like hunt, smoke cigars, and grow beards. It’s the kind of ambition Offerman-as-Ron-Swanson would salute.
Neither really has a good reason for doing this; Joe (Nick Robinson) is tired of dealing with the gruff discipline of his father (Offerman), and Patrick’s (Gabriel Basso) parents are just oblivious to their own painful squareness. But go they do, with a third kid (a hobbit-sized weirdo known only as Biaggio, embodied by Moises Arias) tagging along. They steal the tools and supplies they need, and disappear into the trees to achieve all their dreams of self-reliant masculinity. With lovely, Malick-inspired cinematography we get several improvisatory montages, as the kids swing swords, attempt to catch vermin, drink beer, dance around a fire, and so on — it’s a wish-fulfillment fantasy for boys everywhere.
The film’s strongest attribute is the relatable interplay between the two leads. Along the way, the dialogue sparkles with authenticity — it’s always great when kids sound like kids, in the grand tradition of Stand By Me and The Goonies. The film has a tendency to bend towards surrealist humor; Joe is taken to hyper-stylized daydreams, and the character of Biaggio (who no one understands or knows anything about, even the adults) seems to exist solely to say the weirdest non sequiturs possible in any given situation. There are moments where it lays on the quirk a little bit too thick, and that surrealism plays like an awkward cartoon. Biaggio, clearly intended to be the film’s breakout character, doesn’t even closely resemble a human being in word or deed. Meanwhile, as the boys play-act their new life, the parents search fruitlessly, the police being the kind of semi-competent boobs you only find in an independent film.
Before long the boys’ friendship is tested, but it comes in the most predictable and uninteresting of ways (though it could hit hard if it reminds you too much of your own adolescence). As a consequence the last third of the film feels somewhat aimless, like even the filmmakers don’t really know what they want their work to say, and that’s too bad — because for nearly an hour, the The Kings of Summer is totally charming. A film isn’t required to have a deep meaning, but it should at least have a clear point-of-view. I wasn’t quite sure whether to root for these kids, or plead with them to come to their senses. As a “boys hanging out” story, it’s wonderful. As a “boys growing up” story…I’m not sure.
It’s worth a rental, though. Maybe you’ll find something I missed.