Film Review: The Kings of Summer

by Chad Liffmann on June 5, 2013

Nick Robinson, Gabriel Basso, and Moises Arias in The Kings of Summer

Gabriel Basso, Moises Arias and Nick Robinson in The Kings of Summer

Two teens bang sticks against a giant rusted steel pipe running through the forest;  atop the pipe, a third teen dances spastically to the rhythm.  The three kids continue like this for a while, devoid of distractions or concerns.  They’re completely carefree, and we immediately yearn to free ourselves with them.  So begins The Kings of Summer, a film about three teenagers who run away from their frustrating domestic lives to build a house in the woods and fend for themselves in the wilderness for a summer.  The story is a familiar type of coming-of-age tale in which each character discovers something about his or herself — not just the teens, but the adults, as well (or at least a few of them).  The film features beautiful cinematography and a lively soundtrack.  It is wistful and sincere, yet partial and contrived.  There is something inherently attractive about this film genre — the independent coming-of-age film — in which not that much really happens.

This genre has a special place within anti-mainstream counter culture, at least until a title becomes too popular and overtakes the common tongue and tastes of a certain age group (see Garden State).  It’s a genre in which characters are frequently depicted feeling real-world emotions in the most pretentious way: via a musical montage.  Kings is the first feature film from “Funny Or Die Presents” veteran director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, and it falls victim to some of these and other indie-film commonalities.  The film is ultimately memorable, however, because it doesn’t take itself too seriously, but, instead embraces its own imperfections with a scattered tone and a layered depiction of teen angst.

Nick Robinson (Melissa & Joey) plays Joe Toy, the intelligent, romantic, yet troublemaking son of strict single parent Frank Toy (Nick Offerman).  Joe doesn’t quite know how to behave under the overbearing guidance of his father, and Frank doesn’t know how to handle his son’s need for space and emotional understanding.  Their frustration reaches a breaking point, and so Joe wrangles two friends, Patrick (Gabriel Basso) and Biaggio (Moises Arias)into running away with him to build a house in the woods and become self-sustaining for a summer.  Basso (Super 8, The Big C) is excellent as the sturdy Patrick, serving as the trio’s voice of reason and stability.  Arias (Hannah Montana, Ender’s Game) steals the show as the unpredictable, strange, and ethnically unidentifiable Biaggio.  This trio of actors, who, for a change, are all actually in their teens, have strong chemistry with each other.  Aside from a few lines of unnecessarily pretentious dialogue aimed at provoking an extra laugh, they deliver their dialogue well.  And, they admirably feed off each other’s energy.

In terms of the funny dialogue, the three young stars aren’t as seasoned as the plethora of comedians featured in bit parts.  Vogt-Roberts has invited many familiar faces that he (I assume) met while writing for Funny or Die.  In most cases, these cameos prove to be comedic gold.  Other times, they feel forced and superfluous.  As is typical in many indie comedies, too many actors (young and old) in The Kings of Summer are given jokes to be delivered dead-pan or sarcastically nonchalant.  Only the droll Offerman (Parks & Recreation) and a few others can pull this feat off, including the amazingly restrained Kumail Nanjiani (Portlandia).  When the young actors try to deliver such lines, they sound odd, like they were meant to be movie trailer one-liners.  However, all the cast members look like they’re having fun trying, so these attempts are not a huge distraction.

The film is in its most comfortable state when the three young actors are shown embracing the wild outdoors and their newfound freedoms.  They run, jump, fight, and behave like adolescent boys…as they should!  In a Q&A session following the screening, the three actors spoke of the extensive amounts of b-roll footage taken as they filmed in the Ohio backwoods.  I can’t say I’ve ever seen a film feature so much stellar b-roll footage.  This material is featured so prominently in the final cut that an argument could be made that it’s not b-roll at all.  The footage doesn’t act as mindless filler, but, instead, as captivating depictions of teenage expression.  These moments do sometimes feel noticeably unscripted, but that doesn’t matter.  The film employs a slow-motion camera and great music (a uniquely playful score by Ryan Miller, and songs by Kyle Writer & Douglas James) to accompany these montages, and the effect is quite engrossing.  For a first time director, Vogt-Roberts shows that he’s adept at handling a range of tones that could otherwise easily get out of hand.  The aforementioned moments of youthful ecstasy are directed with the same effectiveness as the moments of silent meditation and humorous banter.

Many critics have begun comparing this film to Stand By Me, proclaiming it a modern coming-of-age tale for the new generation.  Kings, though, doesn’t carry the same emotional weight as the 1986 film based on the Stephen King novel.  This film does, on the other hand, have a more pronounced sense of humor.  At times the humor blocks the film from reaching the emotional impact that could have placed it among the upper-echelon of similar titles.  But, from a pure escapist point of view, there is no shame in just having some fun.  You won’t find Kings screening in IMAX or 3D, though, and thank goodness.  Kings is the type of film that flies underneath the radar and relies heavily on word-of-mouth to make a financial splash, yet manages, nevertheless, to be an interesting film to keep coming back to and discuss extensively with friends, similar to last year’s clever Safety Not Guaranteed (though that only took in $4 million at the domestic box office).  But that one also wasn’t as funny.  There are silly moments here that don’t quite seem to fit, but you quickly realize that this film is a giant mess of imperfect moments.  Maybe I shouldn’t give too much credit to Vogt-Roberts and writer Chris Galletta, but if they intended this collage of a film to so accurately parallel the character arcs within it, then hats way off.  Intentional or not, this film may easily become one of those films that will be warmly regarded as a strong welcome for all its incredible emerging talent, like MementoAmerican Beauty, and The Sixth Sense (kind of).

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The Kings of Summer opens in select Bay Area theaters on Friday, June 7th.

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