Sometimes, you just can't help but surrender to a film.
The Kings of Summer is such a film. While the film most easily fits into the label of coming-of-age films, it's also a film that easily defies such a label or, for that matter, any specific label. The Kings of Summer, while not a flawless film, is a little bit of a wonder. It's the kind of film that makes you feel better after watching it than you did before. The film is frequently laugh out loud funny, while also being quite substantial and meaningful. It's the kind of film, I'd guess, that Rob Reiner was trying to make when he was trying to make Flipped a few years back and it's the kind of film he did make when he made Stand by Me early in his directorial career.
The film is about three boys whose personal lives are defined by chaos or instability or simply a scattered sense of self. When one of the boys, Joe Toy (Nick Robinson, television's Melissa & Joey), ends up being chased away from a wild party by the police he discovers an almost mystical clearing in the woods that he decides would be the perfect place to escape from the clutches of his father (Nick Offerman, Parks & Recreation), a man whose ability to father has already been limited but is made moreso by the sudden death of his wife and Joe's mom. Joe talks his longtime best friend, Patrick (Gabriel Basso, television's The Big C), into joining him on the adventure and building a makeshift yet well constructed home in the woods. Patrick's parents, played by Megan Mullally and Marc Evan Jackson, are quite the opposite from Joe's father in turning the idea of "doting" into a personality disorder. Biaggio (Moises Arias, television's The Middle & Hannah Montana) is a rather endearing oddfellow who seemingly just sort of shows up and asserts himself into the boys' lives and newfound home.
I have heard some folks call The Kings of Summer one of the best coming-of-age films in years. While I'm not quite ready to make such a lofty claim, The Kings of Summer is certainly one of this summer's most pleasant surprises and a film that deserves to transcend its indie/arthouse roots to find a wider audience.
Indianapolis moviegoers will also want to take note that The Kings of Summer is a recipient of the Heartland Truly Moving Picture Award, a recognition of its positive and inspiring values and messages. I say it nearly every single time that Heartland gives the Truly Moving Picture Award - we always say that we want these types of films in movie theaters, but when it comes time to actually attend the films we always get distracted by the mega-budget films. While it's wonderful to say "I'll see it on DVD," the simple truth is that studios listen to the almighty dollar and box-office receipts do matter. Do you want positive and life-affirming films? Then you need to support films like The Kings of Summer while they are in theaters.
End of lecture.
The film premiered to wide acclaim at the Sundance Film Festival under the name Toy's House, but whatever the name rest assured that this is a film almost sure to please. That said, the film actually doesn't necessarily pull tremendously on the heartstrings. First-time writer Chris Galletta and first-time director Jordan Vogt-Roberts have infused the film with a sense of authenticity that avoids overt histrionics or excessive displays of emotions. While this slightly lessens our emotional attachment to the boys, it feels truer to the ways that teenagers relate to one another with lots of wit, sarcasm, displays of brawn and occasional power struggles that are more accurate reflectors of male friendships in the adolescent years.
While young Nick Robinson is already a popular actor on television, his performance here may very well be his bridge into film work. Robinson makes Joe edgy without ever actually going over the edge. His conflicts with his father feel incredibly genuine, though this also has as much to do with Nick Offerman's uncomfortably good performance as Joe's bereaved father. While Gabriel Basso has less in the way of emotional range to work with, he turns Patrick into what amounts to a young man-child, a bit of a stoic with a core center as gooey as they come.
Moises Arias serves quite successfully as the film's comic relief, yet amidst all the comedy you leave the theater realizing that you've truly grown to care about and enjoy this quirky yet admirable young man who probably would fit nicely into the Napoleon Dynamite world. Megan Mullaly and Marc Evan Jackson avoid caricature despite the almost caricaturish qualities of their characters, a mother and father who can't seem to realize that their little boy is nearing his mid-teens. As Joe's older sister, Alison Brie takes a fairly one-note role and fleshes it out quite nicely.
Among the key players, only Erin Moriarty feels a little flat as Kelly. This may very well be because the entire storyline involving Joe's crush on her feels just a tad extraneous given all the other dynamics in the film and despite the fact that the relationship plays a key factor in the film's less satisfying final half hour. Just as the relationship between Joe and Patrick isn't all warm and fuzzy, the crush that Joe has on Kelly feels manufactured to the point that a storyline that goes in unexpected directions actually is far more satisfying.
Ross Riege's lensing is stellar throughout the film, capturing the idyllic place in which the boys choose to locate their home as an almost magical land despite the fact that it's obviously rather close to their actual homes. If I have a slight beef with the photography, it would be with what feels like an occasional sense of poetic license that may be beautiful to look at but which distracts from the story at hand. There's also an over-reliance on visual cues that are a bit too dominating in their presence.
Ryan Miller's original music is simply exceptional in capturing both the coming-of-age aspects of the story along with the innocence, wonder and vulnerabilities of all involved. Tyler B. Robinson's production design is top notch, as is most of the other tech on the film that was shot in Ohio.
The Kings of Summer is not without its flaws, but the flaws are easy to forgive because newcomer Jordan Vogt-Roberts directs like a veteran and manages to infuse the film with so much visual wonder and authentic harmony. The Kings of Summer may not be the showiest film you could see this weekend, but it's surely one of the most satisfying.
As a side note, the MPAA has ridiculously slapped the film with an "R" rating due to a couple of obscenities and some teen drinking. The "R" rating is ludicrous and yet another example of the MPAA's irrelevance. While the film isn't likely for small children, any youth capable of seeing a PG-13 film is fully capable of appreciating this film and, quite honestly, really should see this film.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic