July 14, 2013

The Kings of Summer

It's easy to make a movie about and for teenagers that panders to them. John Hughes did it with The Breakfast Club: he let his characters dwell on the magnitude of their problems and inflated them so that we could see just how awful the grown-ups were. (The only grown-up we get to see much of in that movie is the hard, cruel dean, played by Paul Gleason.) Those teenagers were connected to each other by the fact that their parents either despised or ignored them, or both. (And yes, I watched The Breakfast Club a million times as a teenager and loved it. And I still do.)

And then there's The Kings of Summer, which is intent on transcending its youthful characters' problems. Yes, their parents are obtuse, even unfeeling, but the film wants to explore how they deal with their problems, not how they wallow in them. The boys, Joe, Patrick, and Biaggio, are played with comic flair and real vulnerability by Nick Robinson, Gabriel Basso, and Moises Arias, respectively. Joe and Patrick are longtime best friends, and Biaggio is an odd duck who tags along with them, finding acceptance. (Happily, the film doesn't try to paint him as a purely pathetic outcast : he's just different, and that's okay.)

But Joe and Patrick are relatively normal boys. Joe and his father (Nick Offerman, who's so good at being a man's man, and funny) don't get along (they're too much like each other). And with Joe's mother dead and his big sister (Alison Brie) off in college, the one-on-one nature of their relationship is beginning to wear on him. Patrick meanwhile is so stressed out by his dopey, trivial, myopic parents (played with delightful comic overtones by Megan Mullally and Marc Evan Jackson), that he's constantly breaking out in hives.

Desperate to escape their parents, Joe and Patrick decide to build a house in the woods on the outskirts of their Ohio town. They cobble it together with various discards from construction sites (including a porta-potty door as their front entrance) and whatever else they can find, even incorporating a playground slide as a sort of staircase. It's Robinson Crusoe meets Huck Finn meets Stand By Me.

The Kings of Summer is a beautifully made film, an offbeat tale with wonderfully original comic interactions, but it's also something of a Buddhist at heart. We're meant to feel a kind of unity with nature as we watch these boys throw off the shackles of modern civilization (to a degree) in favor of living off nature. But at the end--you can guess what happens, I won't reveal--we're left with images of the natural inhabitants of the forests: the owls, the snakes, the furry creatures, all of them seemingly saying, "If you're going to play here, you better leave nice-and-easy behind you."

This is a happy and refreshing antidote to the loud and inane summer blockbuster movies. With Erin Moriarty and Mary Lynn Rajskub. Written by Chris Galletta. Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts. 94 min. 


Robert said...

Great review. Nice reference to Stand By Me and your observations about the film's view of nature are interesting.

This really was a great flick. One of the better coming of age movies I've seen in a while.

pannedreview said...

Thanks for reading, Robert. I agree: It was a refreshing coming-of-age movie. My favorite of that variety is Breaking Away (1979). If you haven't seen it, I can't recommend it highly enough.