The Kings of Summer (2013)

11 Nov


Smith’s Verdict: **1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

There’s a good film somewhere within Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ debut feature “The Kings of Summer”—it just needs to be found. This would like to be the next “Stand by Me”—a coming-of-age teenage story about how a seemingly-fun, unusual journey teaches its young characters to grow up and face reality. And sometimes, the film gets that angle right with some nicely-done, beautiful sequences and good acting by the principals, but it lets itself down by now allowing itself to truly go into some of these issues (and when they do, they overdo it) and giving us awkward, forced, sitcom-style filler to surround the worthy material. So, while I give it some points for trying, the film as a whole is mainly a mess.

The film is about a high school student named Joe Toy (Nick Robinson), who lives with his jerk of a single father (Nick Offerman). His mother has died, and his older sister (Alison Brie) isn’t around anymore (she moved out when she got the chance). His friend, Patrick (Gabriel Basso), has a home life that is suffocating for him, with his ridiculously-hovering parents always around him. When Joe and a weird kid named Biaggio (Moises Arias) get lost on their way home from a party, they find a beautiful wooded area that Joe decides he wants to live in. So he brings Patrick in on his plan to run away from home to build a house in the middle of the woods. Joined by Biaggio, they go through with the plan and live there in their own makeshift cabin for a good chunk of the summer. But when Joe’s crush, a girl named Kelly (Erin Moriarty), gets involved in this new world they’ve created, things get complicated when she and Patrick develop their own relationship.

There are moments in this film, even among the moments that I thought were either forced or painful, where I thought it was going somewhere. There are beautifully-executed montage sequences, all of which involve the boys building the house (this sequence has a most appropriate use of the MGMT song, “The Youth”), exploring the great outdoors, or simply thinking about which situation they get into. And the final act, in which the boys’ friendship is tested and Joe can’t bring himself to come back to civilization until a key moment arrives, kept the story from being predictable, which was refreshing. So there are moments in the film that do work well, thanks to the direction and the acting. But the script is all over the map. There are many painful, artificial attempts at humor, most of which involve the adults. The adults in this film are so dim and clueless, and they speak and work entirely in sitcom manner. Aside from Joe’s jackass father and Patrick’s overly-hovering parents, there are also two incompetent cops called in to investigate the boys’ “kidnapping.”

These moments hurt the serious material and make “The Kings of Summer” very inconsistent. I’m aware that you do need comic relief when you deal with issues that are heavy (dealing with difficult home life, dealing with first love, finding out who you are as a person, knowing how to solve your problems), but this is pushing it. Besides, the film already has the character of Biaggio for that. This kid is beyond weird—the things he says are beyond disturbing (“I don’t see myself as having a gender” or “I can read; I just can’t cry”)—but the deadpan delivery given by Moises Arias makes it work and makes us laugh. (I would say that the fact that Biaggio is essentially a one-note caricature is another problem, but it didn’t bother me as much as the other attempts at humor.)

Mainly, what “The Kings of Summer” wants to deliver is a message that growing up and becoming a man doesn’t mean just doing whatever you want to do, and that friendship (such as the one between Joe and Patrick) can be tested and fought unless there’s some form of ground they can find with their emotions (Joe kind of becomes an emotionally bully later in the film). And while I like the young actors and Vogt-Roberts’ direction, and there are images that stick in your mind for a while, “The Kings of Summer” mostly suffers from an over-written, uneven script that takes its topics and either does little with them or ignores them.

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