Directed by: Jordan Vogt-Roberts.
Written by: Chris Galletta.
Starring: Nick Robinson (Joe), Gabriel Basso (Patrick), Moises Arias (Biaggio), Nick Offerman (Frank), Erin Moriarty (Kelly), Megan Mullally (Mrs. Keenan), Marc Evan Jackson (Mr. Keenan), Alison Brie (Heather), Eugene Cordero (Colin), Gillian Vigman (Carol), Mary Lynn Rajskub (Captain Davis), Thomas Middleditch (Rookie Cop).
Every year the Sundance Film Festival serves as launching pad for many Indie comedy/dramas telling coming of age stories about teenagers from dysfunctional families. With my (finally) catching up with The Kings of Summer, the triple bill of indie hits in this vein emerging from Sundance is now complete for 2013. On the high end, you have James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now, an uncommonly intelligent film about teenage romance, sex, love and alcoholism, that hits all the notes we expect, but not quite in the way we expect it to. In the middle is Nat Faxon and Jim Rash’s The Way Way Back, an agreeable movie, filled with movie stars doing low key character work, that hits all the notes we expect in precisely the way we expect, but it still entertaining – cinematic comfort food if you will. And now, on the low end, is Jordan Vogt-Roberts The Kings of Summer, a well-meaning film to be sure, but one that all the notes we expect it to, in mostly unsatisfying ways.
The film is about three teenage boys – Joe (Nick Robinson), stuck living with his overbearing, sarcastic verging on cruel father Frank (Nick Offerman) and still reeling from the death of his mother. Patrick (Gabriel Basso), whose overly kind parents (Megan Mullally and Marc Evan Jackson) are always hovering above him – encouraging him, and being generally overprotective and extremely annoying. And then there’s Biaggio (Moises Arias), who is just plain weird – when he speaks at all, it’s in non sequiturs, and you cannot help but spending much of the movie runtime wondering just what the hell is wrong with him. They stumble across a pristine, unspoiled wonderland in the middle of the forest (I couldn’t help but think of the mystical “crevasse” on The Weekenders), and decide to build a house there, and move in over the summer. This will allow them to be “real men” – independent and on their own. They, of course, don’t tell their parents their plan, and although the parents report their children missing to police, no one seems to be trying to find them. The first thing they did in the recent Prisoners was send search parties into the woods – but either no one thinks of doing this in The Kings of Summer, or no one cares. No one even notices when Joe and Biaggio, frequent the local Boston Market, when they discover hunting is harder than they thought it was going to be.
The movie is about these three “becoming men” - which basically consists of them dancing around in the middle of nowhere, eating around a fire and looking at the sunset. What dialogue these three speak to each other isn’t very enlightening or all that entertaining or funny either. I guess, we can at least be thankful in these stretches for Arias’ presence – I have no idea what he’s doing for much of the movie, but at least it’s not dull and boring like Joe and Patrick are.
Slightly better are the scenes of Frank back home, wondering what he did that was so terrible to drive his own son away – and gradually seeing that yes, he is in fact a bully and an asshole. This is mainly because of Offerman – who is basically playing the same character he plays on Parks and Recreation, but without his cuddly teddy bear core that makes Ron Swanson so sympathetic. This isn’t entirely a bad thing – hearing Offerman at his sarcastic best is still a blast (“Can you relate it to my life in an allegorical fashion?”), but it’s still a minor pleasure. Unfortunately, the film basically wastes the sweet comic presence of Alison Brie as Joe’s older sister – and although I quite enjoyed Mullally and Jackson’s interplay, it’s basically one note.
The movie, of course, contains young love and heartbreak – all involving Kelly (Erin Moriarty) as the girl who Joe is infatuated with, who, of course, falls for Patrick – causing friction – basically because the movie needs something to get it to its climax. This entire subplot is thoroughly unconvincing because it feels like it tacked on.
The Kings of Summer is a perfect example of the type of movie that comes out of Sundance with lots of buzz that when you watch it later, outside the atmosphere of the festival, you cannot help but wonder what all the fuss was about. I’ve probably made the movie sound worse than it actually is – it is a well-meaning movie, with a few isolated moments that work – but not by much.