By: Paul Zecharia | www.stonesdetroit.com
Straight out of Sundance is by far one of the year’s best films, The Kings of Summer, a comedic and dramatic coming-of-age story about the thrills and challenges of growing up. Newcomer director Jordan Vogt-Roberts brings to the screen an unconventional boys’ adventure story from a screenplay by debut screenwriter Chris Galletta filled with both humor and heart. This is the kind of summer film that will most likely not be a box-office hit, but rather a critical darling that more people should see during the summer. This recaptures that childhood innocence and sense of adventure that we don’t often see anymore in films about American youth. All props go to our three main stars: Nick Robinson, Gabriel Basso, and Moises Arias. Unlike the childhood adventure films of the ‘80s and early ‘90s like Stand By Me, Flight of the Navigator, The NeverEnding Story, or The Goonies, The Kings of Summer does not necessarily succumb to too much whimsicality and light-heartedness. Not to say that those traits make those films bad or of less caliber, but The Kings of Summer just happens to have a lot of wit and snark to add to the dramatic challenges that our main characters go through.
It’s the end of the school year and our main character is Joe Toy (Robinson), a teenager struggling to get along with his stubborn single father Frank (Nick Offerman). Frank is distant from his son and pretty much embarrasses him at every opportunity. Also, Frank is seeing a woman whom Joe does not approve of, and he directly expresses this during an unpleasant Family Game Night that he was roped into. Joe’s best friend Patrick Keenan (Basso) is also dealing with parental issues; his mother (Megan Mullally) and father (Marc Evan Jackson) are way too worrisome about their son for the little things, like what shirt he should wear while gardening. Frustrated and tired, parents, Joe comes up with the idea to run away into the woods as far as possible and build a house there. They are eventually joined by an oddball classmate called Biaggio (Arias), who basically has no agenda whatsoever for being with the boys, but they would rather not question him. So by stealing wood and tools from their parents and build a sturdy house in the woods. There, these boys teach themselves to become men and form a pact that they will forever live in the house in the woods, tell no adult, and give each other the freedom to do whatever they want. They are the masters of their own destiny.
One of the huge strengths of the film is the performances. Nick Robinson, whose credits include being a series regular on “Melissa & Joey” and appearing on “Boardwalk Empire”, is splendid at capturing what it is like to be in the middle of being a child and adult with the pains of growing up and having a wild imagination. Gabriel Basso, whose last big hit was Super 8, does great at playing that reluctant best friend at first, but because we see the troubles he goes through with his parents, it makes him all the more relatable. Moises Arias, who’s a familiar face on several Disney Channel programs, is absolutely hilarious as the unpredictable Biaggio. This character steals the show with his deadpan delivery of out-of-the-blue one-liners and questionable actions. You can tell that he was given a lot of freedom to play this role and he is just having a blast. The way Joe and Patrick work off Biaggo is so funny and charming. And that’s what it ultimately comes down to with these three characters. There is no over-the-top comedy to be dealt with here. These are three genuinely great actors.
The Kings of Summer does have the right execution and pacing to make the world that three boys live in seem believable. Their situations of dealing with adolescent angst are captured through the sheer will to escape into their own world. Aside from the characterizations, the atmosphere deserves attention and praise for its strong ability for drawing audiences in. The film takes place in Ohio, but the majority of it is set in the woods nearby the boys’ houses. Both the actors and story are very in tune with nature. We do get some montages of trees, plants, and animals along with some beautiful sceneries of the open fields, steams, and the woods. It is first established as a peaceful place, but with some dangerous elements. But the boys do their best to adapt to their new lifestyles. They hunt, swim in the lake, and engage in activities in their house. However, they do end up having to get chicken from a Boston Market for dinner due to their inability to hunt. Aside from that, their experiences almost seems like a fantasy without it actually dealing with any kind of magic.
The supporting cast members are also well-characterized. Nick Offerman, a.k.a. Ron Swanson of “Parks and Recreation”, is effective and hilarious as Frank Toy, the head of the dysfunctional Toy family. Besides Biaggio, he also has some of the funniest lines in the film, whether he’s dealing with the boyfriend (Eugene Cordero) of his eldest daughter Heather (Alison Brie) or with the incompetent cops (Mary-Lynn Rajskub and Thomas Middleditch) who are tasked with finding the lost boys. Even Patrick’s airhead parents also get some good laughs and even a hilarious cameo from “Arrested Development” star Tony Hale as an alarmed bus passenger. We also have Erin Moriarty, last seen in last summer’s The Watch, as Kelly, the love interest of Joe. She’s on her way to be a star, giving a sweet and sincere performance. But does her character feel the same way that Joe feels about her? Typical teenage romance is played out but done very well and genuine here.
You want a big and bombastic summer blockbuster? You’re not gonna find it here. Are you looking for top-notch action and visual effects? Go somewhere else. Do you crave mindless entertainment? Too bad, because it will not be provided here. Even if it does feel heartwarming and hilarious at times, it knows how to find the best balance and knows how to use the actors effectively. Every actor in this film is great. Even the atmosphere is incredibly helpful to set the tone for exploring the issues that teenagers go through. Dealing with difficult parents is no stranger to film and it’s not like The Kings of Summer is a completely original piece. But the execution does make it enjoyable and engaging. You will laugh and have fun, but you will be drawn into many dramatic moments that will make you feel something without being manipulated. Much of this is attributed to the fresh approach given by Vogt-Roberts. He makes this world that the boys live in a world where they can make their own rules and all freedom belongs to them. The three boys are having fun in their environment because they created it. They are the masters, the rulers, the kings of summer.
Five out of five stars.
The Kings of Summer is rated R for language and some teen drinking.
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