Nostalgia Wins the Day in Quirky, Spirited 'Kings of Summer'

Directed by: Jordan Vogt-Roberts; Runtime: 95 minutes;
Grade: B

Underneath the baking sun and through the branches of densely-packed trees, Jordan Vogt-Roberts' The Kings of Summer taps into several different veins of nostalgia and life experience within its coming of age tale: the exuberance of playing in the woods as young boys, the drive to build a hideout as pre-teens, and the rebelliousness of emerging teenage men. They come together into a yarn about three guys -- well, two, and a tagalong -- who decide that they've had enough of living with their parents, where Vogt-Roberts paints their journey into "manhood" with picturesque nature shots that make their living environment come alive, along with a blend of quirkiness and reality that acts like something between a memory and a dream reminiscent of the past. It's a well-performed, purely-written character piece with moments of surprising humor, even if the guys' summer of survival and growth ultimately fades into disposable teenage drama once it comes to a close.

The idea of living out in the wilderness originates with Joe (Nick Robinson), a sophomore in high-school whose mother died some time ago. His father, Frank (Nick Offerman), has turned into a snarky, tyrannical parent -- at least, in Joe's eyes -- who seems like he's ready to move forward in his life. Conversely, his best friend Patrick (Gabriel Basso) is also dealing with overbearing parents (Megan Mullally; Marc Evan Jackson), only they're more of the control freak variety than Joe's father. By luck, and with a new acquaintance, Biaggio (Moises Arias), by his side, Joe happens to stumble onto a clearing in the woods that would be perfect for simply getting lost from the world for a while. Taking the idea a step further, he draws some plans to build a ramshackle cabin in the middle of the woods for he and Patrick, and their bizarre new buddy, to "run away" for an indeterminate amount of time. With a little planning and preparation (and stolen supplies), their dirty, stubbly, sun-drenched summer of freedom begins a month later, whether they're prepared for the challenges of living off the land or not.

As the boys settle into their shack, the tone of The Kings of Summer struggles with feeling somewhere between a sincere coming-of-age chronicle and an idiosyncratic comedy, guided by Vogt-Roberts' stylized, vibrant direction. Mixing moments of teenage defiance and machismo with the elegantly photographed rusticity of "their" forest, most of Chris Galletta's script comes across as honest and instinctive through Joe and Patrick's banter about survival and maturity. Despite their work ethic in getting the shack up (that's quite a structure three teenagers built in a month's time), their activities reflect what one would expect of boys their age in their situation -- late sleeping, roughhousing, food solution cheats -- which comes together into a mosaic of freedom that's more evocative than amusing. The source of the group's quirk lies in Biaggio (Moises Arias), the unlikely third prong of their operation who voices some truly off-the-wall, unsolicited stuff that, despite getting laughs, awkwardly meshes with the frankness of Joe and Patrick's rite of passage.

The flipside of what's going on in The Kings of Summer lies beyond their hideaway, where the parents -- namely Joe's father, Frank -- deal with the disappearance of their children. For the most part, the child-disappearance drama remains subdued and played for humor, instead focused on how Joe's father tolerates the situation; he's not overly concerned about the disappearance at first, treating it like runaway kids who'll wise up soon enough. Nick Offerman hordes much of the film's forthright comedy as Frank, whose sardonic language and responsive attitude easily mask the lack of heightened distress over the runaway boys. Yet, there are moments where his grief credibly gets the better of him, such as an equally comical and on-edge scene that involves a blow-up over Chinese takeout. Combined with yet another solid performance from Alison Brie as Joe's edgy and sharp-tongued collegiate sister, the time spent away from the wilderness feels less superfluous than the script treats it as being.

Looming tension and desperation in the boys' circumstances requires some nuance from the cast, once again blending doses of drama and eccentricity. Most people, especially those who remember that period in their lives, know what happens when guys are stuck together in a confined space for too long a period: magnified drama over little things. What's somewhat frustrating is how purposefully Joe, their leader, exacerbates the situation that predictably erupts over a member of the opposite sex, Kelly (Erin Moriarty), playing it partially for comedic effect -- he acts like he's stumbled out of either a Wes Anderson movie or Napoleon Dynamite -- while trying to hold onto his legitimate growth as a liberated man. Luckily, the performance from Nick Robinson handles Joe's unshaven drama-queen inclinations surprisingly well, intentionally mirroring his father's attitude for effect, while Gabriel Basso credibly conveys the demeanor of a guy who doesn't want to damage their relationships ... or their project.

The Kings of Summer ultimately achieves what it sets out to do, bottling the spirit of independence and the desire to live off the land that emerges in guys of that age, scratching off a checklist of wistful childhood experiences that'll easily stir something in those watching. This comes together into a piece of comedy-laced nostalgia that works in being an ode to the likes of Stand By Me, but there's not enough substance left at the end of their journey to hammer home a memorable takeaway from their moments in the sun. For a coming-of-age film that frequently dares to be different through its visual tempo and zany humor, it's a little strange to see it approach such a shrug-worthy ending, whether it's the culmination of Joe's time in the wilderness or what happens between the best buds and the object of our protagonist's desire. It leaves one fumbling over what exactly the experience meant to the boys involved, instead leaving one to think about what their past experiences -- if they have any -- meant to them.

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