Shown at Sundance under the title “Toy’s House,” Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ “The Kings of Summer” is a coming-of-age tale that touches a lot of bases and explores a variety of tones in ways that most films are too timid to do.
Based on a witty, imaginative script by Chris Galletta, “The Kings of Summer” focuses on a pair of teen pals. Joe (Nick Robinson) lives with his father, Frank (Nick Offerman), a gruff widower who has moved on past his grief. Joe is angry that his dad doesn’t seem to feel the same sorrow Joe does at the loss – because Frank has started dating.
His friend Patrick (Gabriel Basso) lives with both parents (Marc Evan Jackson and Megan Mullally), who smother him with attention, yet seem barely engaged in his life. They still see him as a child, as they try to pull the strings on his life.
The boys escape to the nearby woods, where Joe happens upon what seems like the perfect little hidden grove: a clearing that’s not only hard to find but which is perfectly sheltered from the rest of the world. Inspired by his frustration with his father, Joe enlists Patrick and another friend, Biaggio (Moises Arias) to build – no, not a clubhouse but an actual house. They’ll disappear from their lives and live off the land.
The rest of the film deals with that summer adventure: the construction of the house (from salvaged and scavenged materials), the kid-like version of roughing it, with visions of foraging and hunting as they all disappear from home, taking up permanent residence in this new makeshift bungalow retreat.
But this adventure is less “Huckleberry Finn” or “Robinson Crusoe” than a straightforward, often witty tale of teen emotions trying to process a complex situation. Joe is obviously sad about his mother and resents what he sees as his father’s lack of comparable feeling. It’s as if he can’t process his own feelings without his father as a role model. And he’s not getting that.
Joe also is a teen romantic: capable of dreaming of a romance with the girl, Kelly (Erin Moriarty), who obviously has locked him securely in the friend zone. The three intrepid adventurers find their dynamic unfortunately altered when Kelly is invited to visit their Fortress of Teen Emancipation.
Patrick, meanwhile, wants to be his own person and can’t wait to be on his own. He feels like a possession, rather than a member of a family – someone who is seen as some accomplishment on his parents’ part, rather than a person, whose life and launch his parents want to nurture.
For comic relief, there’s Biaggio, the wild card who tags along, despite the fact that neither Joe nor Patrick seems to have invited him. He’s one of those odd little characters that pop up memorably in movies, shifting them off center – and this movie already has plenty of quirks of its own.
Robinson has a natural quality as a teen in turmoil, trying hard not to show it behind a bluff show of ruggedness. It’s a difficult balancing act – the blend of mordant humor, strong feelings and teenage insularity. Gabriel Basso, as Patrick, hits all the right sarcastic notes as the long-suffering victim of parental condescension from parents who don’t realize that he’s no longer a child – at least not in the ways he thinks. Arias has wonderfully weird timing and a truly original comic affect that sells his oddest lines.
Offerman is a gem, a no-bullshit dad with hilariously sarcastic attitude, who finds the love behind the anger and the unhappiness that remains mostly hidden. Mullally and Jackson, as Patrick’s parents, have a chirpy obnoxious quality that’s occasionally over the top but still produces consistently witty moments. A strong supporting cast – including Mary Lynn Rajskub, Thomas Middleditch, Alison Brie and Eugene Cordero – find all the laughs.
“The Kings of Summer” is a solid misunderstood-teen film, with enough drama to balance the comedy and give it poignance. See it with your teen – or with your parents.
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