Kings of Summer, The (United States, 2013)

June 01, 2013
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Kings of Summer, The Poster

Obvious Stand By Me references aside, The Kings of Summer comes across as little more than a TV sitcom with enough swear words included to earn it an "R" rating. There's a little John Hughes vibe here, too: the adults are all idiots and the kids are the ones with all the smarts and the answers. The Kings of Summer does its best to take the lead characters to a place where they don't have to worry about parents and where they can come of age all on their own. The various outlandish situations addressed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts' production contain elements of humor and drama but one senses the filmmakers were going for something more profound and transformative than what ended up on screen.

I didn't feel strongly one way or another about The Kings of Summer. It's too innocuous to actively dislike but there's nothing memorable here. The characters are bland; the comedy, while occasionally eliciting laughs, is lukewarm; and the relationships never gel. There's a sense the movie might have worked better had it incorporated more elements of magical realism or pure fantasy, not unlike what can be found in A Bridge to Terabithia. The Kings of Summer doesn't stay rooted in "reality." So many of the characters are so fatuous that it's impossible to imagine them existing anywhere except in cartoons, and that undercuts the film's intended emotional arc.

Joe Toy (Nick Robinson) is the high school-age son of single father Frank (Parks and Recreation's Nick Offerman in fine form). Joe's mother died at some time in the not-too-distant past and his older sister, Heather (Alison Brie), moved out as soon as the opportunity arose. Frank is strict to the point of being dictatorial and Joe can't wait to get out from under his thumb. Joe's best friend, Patrick (Gabriel Basso), also has parent problems. In this case, it's because his mom and dad are forever hovering. When Joe suggests he and Patrick run away and build (and live in) a cabin in the woods, Patrick (after a brief period of reluctance) agrees. They are joined on their odyssey by Biaggio (Moises Arias), a weird kid who attaches himself to Joe and Patrick's enterprise. The three successfully build a rainproof structure but obtaining dinner becomes a challenge. And when Joe's would-be girlfriend Kelly (Erin Moriarty, who looks distractingly like a young Anna Paquin) accepts an invitation to the cabin, the sparks that ignite between her and Patrick put the boys' friendship in danger.

The success or failure of The Kings of Summer is tied into how well the relationship between Joe and Patrick is developed. Unfortunately, although we're told these two are best friends, we never feel that's the case. There's a coolness between them. Maybe it's because the actors aren't able to convey the depth of the interaction or maybe it's just a matter of poor chemistry. Whatever the case, what's on screen in The Kings of Summer between Joe and Patrick suggests a casual acquaintance rather than a lifelong friendship. Biaggio is around purely for comic relief. He acts weird and says weird things and his "character arc," to the extent that one exists, is shallow.

The Kings of Summer hits its stride once the kids have left civilization behind. Although it's unlikely three teenagers with little carpentry experience could create the house they end up with, it's interesting to observe how life evolves in the absence of an adult influence. The situation with Kelly - Joe's longtime crush who falls for Patrick - adds an uncomfortable (and welcome) layer to an otherwise predictable story. Although sit-com elements continue to infect The Kings of Summer's final act, the conflict that arises between the friends as a result of Kelly's choice adds some emotional heft to the film.

I think the ultimate goal of director Vogt-Roberts and screenwriter Chris Galletta is to provoke viewers into remembering their own childhoods and use those memories to fill in some of the blanks in The Kings of Summer. The movie almost demands an element of nostalgia to fire on all cylinders. However, although I spent a good deal of my misbegotten youth in the woods, nothing in The Kings of Summer got me misty-eyed about the "good old days." As coming-of-age stories go, this one works as passable entertainment. It's as inoffensive as it is insubstantial - the kind of film it will be difficult to remember six months after its release.

Kings of Summer, The (United States, 2013)

Run Time: 1:33
U.S. Release Date: 2013-05-31
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1