Review: The Kings of Summer
PLOT: Three teenaged boys, sick of their home lives, decide to build their own house in a clearing in the woods.
REVIEW: It can be dangerous to quickly label a movie a new classic, but sometimes it's unavoidable. Like in the case of THE KINGS OF SUMMER, which is destined to become a summertime staple for years to come. It's a vivid, funny and sometimes wonderfully weird movie; part coming-of-age tale, part adolescent fantasy, part offbeat supercool comedy. It's comes packing a terrific medley of new faces and veteran comedians, and a unique worldview that simultaneously celebrates the naivety of youth while cracking jokes at its expense.
KINGS' first act almost resembles the opening act of a sitcom, in both plot set-up and the low-key humor it employs. We meet Joe (Nick Robinson), a disaffected high schooler living in desperate boredom with his grumpy father, Frank (Nick Offerman). Mom died several years ago, Frank is attempting to date another woman, and Joe foresees an endless prison sentence of stifling unhappiness at home before he's finally able to leave for college. Similarly, Joe's friend Patrick (Gabriel Basso) is suffocating under the watch of his oppressively lame, overprotective parents (Megan Mullally, Marc Evan Jackson), who, as he says, won't let him walk through the house without socks on. It's under these circumstances, as school ends and a particularly grim summer looms, that the young men decide to embark on a rather ambitious escape.
Joe and Patrick conspire to build a house in the woods - not a treehouse, mind you, but an actual house: a ramshackle shack of a thing assembled from spare planks, sheet metal and whatever else can be swiped from the garbage and construction sites. They're joined in their by an eccentric, frequently scary teen named Biaggio (Moises Arias), who attaches himself to the project almost seamlessly and brings with him many puzzling words of wisdom and life lessons.Together, these "kings of summer" actually build the house and commence living out the rest of their days in the wilderness, growing wispy beards, bathing in the river and attempting to capture food. (Or walking across the nearby highway to the Boston Market.)
THE KINGS OF SUMMER's aesthetic is a fusion of whimsical hipster indie, with multiple slow-mo montages aided by an alt-rock soundtrack, and deadpan comedy reminiscent of NBC sitcoms like "Parks and Recreation" and "The Office." Most of the latter humor comes from the boys' parents, who like all movie parents don't understand their kids and don't even appear to try, while the boys' adventures in the woods have an almost dream-like quality. Writer Chris Galletta pulls off a mixture of sardonic offhandedness and sweet nostalgia impressively; neither attitude seems false or unearned.
If KINGS has a kindred spirit in another movie, it's certainly MOONRISE KINGDOM, which told a similar tale with an ample amount of quirk and visual style. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts often seems a student of Wes Anderson, but perhaps carrying a little more snark and sarcasm in his worldview. His "Kings" of the title enjoy indulging in their fantasy, but they're not fools: they realize without admitting it that it all has to conclude sooner or later.
The film doesn't always completely work; Biaggio's bizarre tics and overall randomness feels like the filmmakers are trying to force a lovable weirdo and his catchphrases (ala Steve Carell's Brick in ANCHORMAN) on us; his one-liners rarely land since they're so independent of everything else that is going on. He's a non sequitur machine, and it gets old before long. However, it falls short of being irritating because Arias is very likable inhabiting this character, who is like a slightly less crazy Gollum to Robinson and Basso's Frodo and Sam.
The rest of the cast is superb; Robinson is an instant-star, a young man with a worldweary face that reminds one of Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Joe is a terrific creation, and Robinson is perfect in the role. Basso, who had a supporting part in SUPER 8, also offers considerable charisma as the pragmatic best friend we all wish we could have. And Nick Offerman applies the familiar delivery he's known for in "Parks and Recreation" here while also showing some range; people are going to love Frank whether they want to or not, not unlike his son. The supporting cast, including Alison Brie (as Joe's sister), Mary Lynn Rajskub (as a clueless cop) and Erin Moriarty (as the girl next door of Joe's dreams) play their roles splendidly as well.