SIFF Film Review – The Kings of Summer
Building a narrative around teenage runaways is not something writer Chris Galletta and director Jordan Vogt-Roberts invented, but at least they had the foresight to put a silly spin on it. Fed up with your parents? Screw it. Let’s go live in the woods. This is a fairly flimsy concept for a film in and of itself, but The Kings of Summer embraces the absurdity of the situation and delights in diversion.
Newcomer Nick Robinson sinks his teeth into the role of Joe, a lovelorn young buck balancing his desire to become a man with the contentious relationship he shares with his overprotective and prickly father (Nick Offerman). Joe’s best friend Patrick (Gabriel Masso) has a similarly strained home life, although it’s his parents’ (Megan Mullally and Marc Evan Jackson) eternal if well-intentioned goofiness that is pushing him away. Rounding out the trio is Biaggio (Moises Arias). We don’t really get a sense of what his motivations for leaving home truly are, other than possibly viewing it as an opportunity to hang with the guys…which is probably a first for him.
Needing very little in the way of convincing, Patrick and Biaggio join Joe in his ridiculous plan to build a house in the woods where they’ll be free to roam at will and grow pathetic facial hair. The boys raid unguarded construction sites and fathers’ tool boxes for materials, and before you know it, they’re full on Swiss Family Robinson (minus the family…and with a lot more swearing). The house itself is unbelievable in its stability, but Vogt-Roberts seems disinterested in realism. This is an escapist fantasy and we’re asked to board the flight of fancy.
Whimsical, witty, sometimes flat-out bizarre, The Kings of Summer is the coming-of-age film of the summer and possibly the decade thus far. Before the hyperbole police bust in and revoke my movie license, allow me to make my case: Any coming-of-age film makes it or breaks it with its choice of casting. If there’s a dud in the group, the whole thing sinks. Fortunately, the ensemble here is stellar. Each of the boys has distinctive character traits and motivations, none of which seem pandering or overly written. I know these kids. Hell, I was these kids.
We jump back and forth between the boys’ wildlife adventures and their parents’ increasingly frustrating search for them. While Mullally and Jackson border on cartoonish with their portrayals of Patrick’s parents at times, it’s clear they love their son and wish nothing but a safe return for him. Joe’s dad is a tougher nut to crack, and I applaud Offerman’s ability to garner our sympathy while still being a raging a-hole. There are some fun cameos for you comedy nerds out there (Mary Lynn Rajskub and Tony Hale, among others), and plenty of what appears to be loose improvisation. If I’m wrong there, all the more kudos for selling this dialogue.
The unsung hero of the film, though, is none other than Moises Arias. A quick IMDb search lists him as having stints on both Hannah Montana and The Middle, but I’ll write a letter to my congressperson if his performance as Biaggio doesn’t make him a movie star. On the page, Biaggio probably reads as a non-sequitur spewing robot, but Arias manages to sell every ridiculous line with his earnestness. Some of the biggest laughs I’ve had in a theater this year are a result of his delivery. Are you listening, congressman?
I look very much forward to what Vogt-Roberts has in store for us next. His style is flashy but never intrusive, and I get the sense he had as much fun making The Kings of Summer as you’ll have watching it.
Final Grade: A
Also, be sure to check out our interview with actor Nick Robinson from SIFF 2013.