The Kings of Summer covers familiar ground. Focused on three teenagers coming of age, this Sundance hit feels nostalgic, even with its contemporary setting, and at some points recalls Stand By Me. But first-time director Jordan Vogt-Roberts brings another sensibility to the film too, more along the lines of Moonrise Kingdom, straining at times for the quirkiness that has come to define Wes Anderson. The result is an inconsistency of tone that should sink The Kings of Summer, but doesn’t, due to the strength of the movie’s performances and humor.
Fifteen-year-old Joe (Nick Robinson) wants to be free of his sarcastic and domineering father, Frank (Nick Offerman). Joe’s mother is recently dead, and he bristles at every action taken by his father, many of which are plainly passive-aggressive responses to having lost his wife. But as Joe’s anger appears mostly to be a function of typical teenage pique, rather than mourning, the dead mother angle comes off as more of a narrative convenience than explanation for the boy’s adolescent unruliness.
Indeed, Joe’s supported in his rebelliousness by his friend, Patrick (Gabriel Basso), also dealing with parental problems. His folks (Megan Mullally and Marc Evan Jackson) are relentlessly chipper and in his face. Repeatedly speaking in odd non sequiturs, they sound as if they’re either perpetually high or members of a cult, and it’s not hard to understand why Patrick wants to get away from their smothering attention. But for all the opposition they provide their sons, with the exception of a few misfires, all the parents provide enough laughs that you can forgive the film for rendering them as little more than caricatures for most of their time on screen.
The friendship between Joe and Patrick provides the satisfying core of the movie. Facing a long summer with little to do, Joe convinces Patrick that they should build their own house in a clearing deep in the woods and live off the land, free of adults for the summer. So they run away and do just that. Though their construction process is rendered in a short montage of reading books and hammering nails, the result is a house that stands strong through the rest of the movie, one of the less convincing aspects of The Kings of Summer.
More believable is the addition of a third fellow traveler on their quest for freedom, a misfit named Biaggio (Moises Arias). He isn’t their friend at first, just a weird kid who shows up for the adventure with no explanation. At one point, Joe says he is scared to tell Biaggio to go away because he doesn’t know what he is might do if rejected. Biaggio is a bit of a wild card: a foot shorter than either Joe or Patrick, he’s a miniature force of nature, he appears variously dancing atop a metal pipe, hacking away at the foliage with a machete, and throwing himself wholeheartedly into the kids’ version of a survivalist lifestyle. Like other elements in the film, he’s a bit of a convenience, often more like a stray dog than a person, loyal to a fault and easily hurt.
Such cuteness makes comparisons of The Kings of Summer to Moonrise Kingdom inevitable, as I’ve already noted. But they’re unfair too. Biaggio and Patrick’s parents probably aren’t quirky enough to have made the cut for Anderson’s movie, and too weird to be believable anywhere but a highly stylized world. There are scenes throughout The Kings of Summer that, despite being very funny as standalone episodes, also create a cognitive dissonance in this otherwise realistic undertaking. But Vogt-Roberts, working off a script by Chris Galletta, is not committed to creating a completely new world where the extra odd touch would make sense.
Because of this, The Kings of Summer is most persuasive out in the woods with the boys. Here, Biaggio’s weirdness is reminiscent of kids many of us recognize from our own high school days, and there is a giddy joy in seeing him in a safe place where he can fly his freak flag without consequences. At the same time, we watch Patrick and Joe grow into their own, however predictably. Patrick, who has always followed Joe’s lead, becomes more independent, and Joe discovers some tough lessons about his own jealousy when a girl appears inside their secluded paradise.
All of this sounds rather conventional and at its core, The Kings of Summer is a very traditional movie about growing up. If the forced quirkiness that occasionally encroaches is alternately distracting and diverting, it remains a good, old-fashioned film about the importance of friendship and family.