MOVIE REVIEW: The Kings of Summer



The summer season is the perfect time of year for a good "coming-of-age" movie about teenagers.  Dozens of the best movies of that central theme, from the cheesy fun of The Sandlot to the serious lessons of Stand by Me, happen during the magic of summer.  If you need a definitive list, look no further than this one of the top 50 on theme from

The ingredients tend to be the same.  School is out and the outside weather gets nice.  At the same time, parental involvement negatively increases as well as the boredom factor.  While today's teen's likely turn to air-conditioning and gaming devices, there are some teens that get out and explore.  That's when the creativity comes out and the risks get taken in a good coming-of-age movie.  Like many that came before it, we've got nice new addition to the bunch with The Kings of Summer.

Joe (Nick Robinson, a series regular on ABC Family's Melissa and Joey) is just finishing up his freshman year of high school.  He's become a bit of a slacker since his mother passed away and is an easy mark for bullies and broken hearts.  The bullies are pretty much everybody and the broken heart comes in the form of Kelly (Erin Moriarty, currently appearing on ABC's Red Widow summer show), the unattainable girl who takes a shine to him but dates the local stud/douchebag.

The biggest cause of Joe's frustration isn't school, but his dreary life at home with his widower father Frank (Parks and Recreation star Nick Offerman), who micromanages his every move.  He constantly feels belittled and suffocated.  Outside of Frank, Joe's one trusted family confidant is his cool big sister (Community's Alison Brie).  Joe's best friend is Patrick (Gabriel Basso of Super 8), who has it a little easier in school as a member of the wrestling team.  Like Joe, the root of his angst lies at home with his out-of-touch and impossibly cheery parents (Megan Mullally and Marc Evan Jackson) who still think he's a helpless child.  He too is ready to crack.

When Joe reaches his breaking point of being fed up at home, he crafts a master plan to run away and build a house in the woods where he can live as a man on his own.  He quickly talks Patrick into joining him.  Joined by the tag-along class weirdo Biaggio (Hannah Montana's Moises Arias), the trio gather supplies and craft their masterpiece, a piece-mail shack of paradise nestled in the trees outside of their small Ohio town, before making the big move for good.  On their own, they enjoy calling their own shots, learning their surroundings, and growing bad stubble.  As with any runaway story, the dilemma comes two-fold with the inevitable missing person's search and the longings of normalcy after the exotic fun wears off.

The Kings of Summer has been generating buzz since debuting at the Sundance Film Festival this past winter, where it was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize.  First-time screenwriter Chris Galletta gives us a classic coming-of-age story but with original elements of his own to the running-away-from-home and secret paradise set-ups.  Guided by first-time feature director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, who's got a few TV and web credits under his belt, nothing is too earth-shattering in tone and that's a positive.  You want a move like this to feel genuine and realistic not preposterous.  Shot with a tender camera lens for Ohio scenery and slow motion by newcomer cinematographer Ross Riege and set to a quirky, but fun 8-bit video game-infused score by Ryan Miller, the movie has a sunlit optimistic style despite its main characters' angst-y reasons for leaving home.  For a mostly first-time effort from this team, they did well.

With its cast of virtual unknowns, the film really does a nice job fleshing out these characters and their unique motivations.  Nick Robinson, in particular, gives a very good lead performance.  He's got a catchy "everyman" quality and charisma that should serve him well in branching away from ABC Family.  While the focus should be on the runaways, the performance that steals the show is Nick Offerman as Joe's dad.  It's almost too good because he constantly upstages his co-stars and even the leads.  His deadpan comedy and sarcasm is spot on and the steadiest source of laughs in The Kings of Summer.

Because of Offerman's dominance, parents might find this movie more intriguing than the teens this movie is hoping to target.  That's not a red flag, by any means, but counts as less than a bullseye for hitting the desired mark.  It's not that Robinson, Basso, and Arias don't do enough, it's that, in the end, it's not all that interesting compared to the peripheral.

The Kings of Summer, while solid summer counter-programming against the big ticket blockbusters, just isn't on the level of last year's outstanding pair of summer coming-of-age movies, Moonrise Kingdom and The Perks of Being a Wallflower.  It's a worthy movie to set some time aside to see, but is not must-have.  Moonrise Kingdom and The Perks of Being a Wallflower  have a brilliance that this movie can't touch or come close to, making the deck of comparison a little stacked against The Kings of Summer.  Later this summer, the indie scene takes another shot at the coming-of-age theme with The Way Way Back, trailer that showed before The Kings of Summer.  Honestly, that film looks better than this one too.

LESSON #1: THE LAYERS AND EFFECTS OF SOCIAL JEALOUSY-- The teens out there know this lesson far too well.  The adults ahead of them likely remember a version of this themselves.  In today's teen scene centered on popularity and status, there exists many layers of social jealousy.  The number and quality of friends is fought over and more visible than in earlier generations.  In addition, as always, guys and girls want to look as cool or as popular as the cool and popular kids.  The pressures of this social jealousy hits teens hard.  We've got two cases of that here with Joe and Patrick.

LESSON #2: THE EMBEDDED COMPETITIVENESS OF LIFELONG FRIENDS-- Let's take Lesson #1 a little deeper.  Outside of the public social scene, the best friends of Joe and Patrick have their own unique relationship.  They back each other's play and help each other through their teen troubles, but, under the surface, there's an embedded competitiveness between them.  A louder example of this is Seth and Even in Superbad.  Remember, two teen boys are still technically males in the same herd.  There's still an instinct to be the best and most desirable of their circle.  Best friends wouldn't be best friends without a little tension to keep things honest and interesting.

LESSON #3: THE PERSONAL EMPOWERMENT OF RUNNING AWAY AND LIVING ON YOUR OWN IN THE WILD-- One of the chief complaints of all teens, regardless of generation, is the lack of control over their own lives.  They are at that difficult crossroads between being a kid and a respected adult.  Too often, parents force their will and their ways on teens.  They do it for their own good because teens are irrational and inexperienced, but we all know teens learn more from failure than protection in many cases.  Those supposedly oppressed teens long for freedom.  You can't get much more emphatic about gaining freedom than running away from home and building your own little pad off the grid in the woods where you become your own boss and live off the land.  The personal satisfaction and empowerment our runaways gain will do them some good, despite being built on a mistake.