The Kings of Summer exists in that kind of Ameri-indie dramedy netherworld that seems to be a standard go-to for fledgling US filmmakers, where quirky characters and purposely awkward dialogue go hand-in-hand with themes of stunted adulthood and fragile masculinities. I sound as if I’m disdainful of The Kings of Summer. I’m not, but it is a film that flitters between being utterly terrible and mawkish with all the worst trappings of generic American indie films (I’m looking at you Garden State), and being potentially one of the best examples of the genre, almost on a par with the best work of its deified godfather Wes Anderson. It has an excellent sense of humour and some excellent dramatic work, which it nearly torpedoes with predictable accessions to cliché and forced quirk.
The story is about three teenage boys, Joe (Nick Robinson), Patrick (Gabriel Basso), and Biaggio (Moisés Arias), who decide to run away during the summer and build a wooden house in the middle of the forest, where they live as nature intended. Joe and Patrick are both frustrated with their parents, with Joe’s dad Frank (Nick Offerman) an overbearingly strict and dull presence since the death of Joe’s mother, whilst Patrick’s parents are suffocatingly sweet and blissfully unaware of the travails of adolescent cynicism.
One can easily argue that both boys are a bit spoilt and unaware of the comparatively minimal size of their problems, but then again most teenagers have a habit of blowing things way out of proportion. Biaggio, for his part, is an outcast who initially latches onto Joe, before being accepted into the group. His motivations for joining with the group are unclear, but according to the film it doesn’t particularly matter, as he’s there primarily for comic relief, and Arias duly rises to the challenge, making Biaggio the most easily likeable and amusing of the three. It’s a shame then, that he doesn’t develop beyond a joke-machine, spilling bizarre non-sequiturs everywhere (“I met a dog the other day, it taught me how to die”). Despite the fact that many of these lines are well-written, it’s the first of the script’s many failings.
Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts at least does make the adventure aspects of the film work brilliantly. Much of the film is spent in the summer house, as the boys bond and try to hunt or gather food. The scenes here have a magnificent, sun-dappled appeal, a sense of isolation (even though logistically the summer house can’t be very far from town: the boys walk there), and a freewheeling improvisational sense, all undercut with the ever-present notion that these scenes amount to little more than boys playing dress-up as adults; there is a great deal of ruminating on the mentality of Manifest Destiny, which the film quite rightly treats as childish and adolescent. Joe in particular is quite obsessed with idea of becoming a man, of claiming his masculinity by living out in the wild and taking the land as his own, even though the opposite is true. Once the realities of outdoor living come to hit—hunger, dangerous wildlife, social isolation—he wants nothing more than to return home to warmth and shelter, even if that means giving up on his terms.
Unfortunately the script, written by Chris Galletta, crowbars in an unfortunately contrived and predictable third act in which many of the elements foreshadowed in earlier scenes come to a head in entirely foreseeable ways, be they the heartbreak of teenage infatuation or venomous snakes. Again here, we see the wonderful humour and the fascinating drama within the film being beset by cliché and just plain lazy storytelling; during the last twenty minutes of The Kings of Summer I mostly switched off, because the ending was so clearly telegraphed and such a disappointment compared to the more freewheeling earlier sections. Nevertheless, the film has plenty going for it: this is a likeable, charming and effective coming-of-age tale, directed with style and love for the characters. Worth a look.