REVIEW: The Kings of Summer [2013]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★


Rating: R | Runtime: 95 minutes | Release Date: May 31st, 2013 (USA)
Studio: CBS Films
Director(s): Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Writer(s): Chris Galletta

“That’s something my great grandfather would say. He’s a racist.”

We’ve all had that urge to runaway when our parents prove too overbearing or too indifferent, but those thoughts disappear quickly once the allure of freedom evolves into a nightmare of self-sufficiency. So we stay at home; deal with the push and pull of personality responsibility, adolescent rambunctiousness, and the hope for a modicum of space/privacy; and either find ourselves accepting our fate or counting the days until escape is agreed upon mutually with the means to support it. Screenwriter Chris Galletta, however, posits what such a premature departure could mean for two high schoolers fed up enough to do it during the months between freshman and sophomore years. With independence seemingly a necessity for best friends Joe (Nick Robinson) and Patrick (Gabriel Basso), it’s off to the woods to be men and The Kings of Summer.

What follows is one of the better coming-of-age tales I’ve seen in quite some time from a first-time screenwriter in Galletta and debut feature filmmaker in Jordan Vogt-Roberts. The honesty portrayed onscreen goes as far as letting these fifteen-year olds’ fantasies play out as though written with dialogue by a fifteen-year old. When we go inside their imaginations we see their insecurities and immaturity, two things ensuring their adventure with eccentric tag-along Biaggio (Moises Arias) is destined to fail. But they don’t worry about the pressure or stress their parents endure day-to-day because to them it’s just a matter of living off the land and pilfering equipment and money to build a makeshift home where no one will find them. It’s a half-baked boys’ club planned by frustrated teenagers fated to be derailed once adult issues enter the fray.

As it’s centered on two hormonal boys, it’s unsurprising their largest obstacle will be a girl (Erin Moriarty‘s Kelly). She provides the perfect bridge between childhood and manhood—the idea of something more than stupid games and unchecked irresponsibility—as well as the wedge to drive Joe and Patrick apart when the pain of rejection taints anything and everything that came previously. And although such a revelation is easily manipulated to mirror how these boys are becoming their fathers, it’s done in a way that plays into the fairy tale sheen of the film itself. Vogt-Roberts crosscuts between parents and child while putting them into situations that make their responses similar to ones the other half made days earlier. Only through their distance can they open their eyes to see beyond the self-pity they’ve embraced far too long.

Being that Joe and Patrick are on the fringe of social acceptance, some of the cool kids feel comfortable hanging around them while others do their best to make them remember their age and inferiority. Getting embarrassed at home via Joe’s sarcastically cruel, widower father Frank (Nick Offerman) and Patrick’s too-involved/too-chipper folks (Megan Mullally and Marc Evan Jackson) just as much as school only exacerbates the situation by pushing them to the point of retribution. But since embarrassment in front of their peers is social suicide, they take their aggression out on those forced by blood to always love them. Patrick does his best to wiggle out of his parent’s over-protective clutches while Joe looks to implode any opportunity for happiness his dad has because in his naïve mind that’s exactly what Frank’s doing to him.

Biaggio fits in as a wild card for weirdness and humor. He’s smaller than the other two yet more imposing courtesy of crazy eyes that can’t help but be disconcerting. We learn little about him save one scene towards the end talking to a faceless father shaving, but it’s as though we know him better than the others as just a strange kid who stumbled upon friends he’d do anything for (a far-cry from Arias’ role as Bonzo in Ender’s Game). Galletta could have gone further down the rabbit hole of absurdity—especially when an unlikely love interest appears in Lili Reinhart‘s Vicki—but he thankfully lets Biaggio linger in the background until called upon so as not to lose focus on Joe’s deteriorating confidence while the idyllic world he believed would land at his feet never arrives.

Basso and Moriarty nicely allow their friendship with Joe to evolve so that it both assists his quest for autonomy and throws a wrench in letting it reach the impossible heights he hopes to achieve. Arias’ comic relief is a treat; Mullally and Jackson’s existence as though on an alternate reality of candy-colored optimism is fun and funnier when her mean streak shakes loose; and other periphery roles like Mary Lynn Rajskub and Thomas Middleditch‘s cops or Alison Brie and Eugene Cordero as Joe’s sister and her boyfriend inject some straight man contrast and a few laughs themselves. The standout, however, is Offerman’s Frank playing Ron Swanson without the restraint of indifference. His unfiltered commentary at those along his path is dryly hilarious and his struggle to be a father authentically awkward in its growing pains.

But at the end of the day The Kings of Summer is about its ringleader Joe and his coping with things going astray. Robinson gives the role an endearing bit of ego with a vicious edge made worse by a father egging him on within a power play of authority. We relate to Joe’s plight and understand the easy smile formed once his retreat is complete and ready to move into—he’s living the dream after all—but we must also weigh the consequences such selfish actions have on the parents desperately searching and wondering what went wrong. So as we pull for Joe to succeed and conquer, we know it cannot last forever. We just hope the end will reveal the common ground and compassion necessary for the empathy that will help put it all behind them.


photography:
[1] Gabriel Basso, Moises Arias and Nick Robinson in CBS Films’ The Kings of Summer (2013)
[2] Nick Offerman in CBS Films’ The Kings of Summer (2013)
[3] Gabriel Basso, Moises Arias and Nick Robinson in CBS Films’ The Kings of Summer (2013)

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