The slight but captivating indie-comedy The Kings of Summer has the ragtag look and feel of a movie made in some teenager’s basement: lots of slow motion; a blaring, catchy soundtrack that opens with a joyous rendition of Thin Lizzy’s “Cowboy Song;” and themes inspired by classic films about youthful friendship like Stand By Me and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Fifteen year-old Joe (Nick Robinson) convinces his best friend Patrick (Gabriel Basso from Super 8) to run away with him for the summer to live in the woods in a house of their own dubious construction. They want to escape their parents’ clutches. “We make the rules,” Joe tells Patrick. “You know, like men.”
Those rules are loose. They allow an acquaintance, Biaggo (Moises Arias) to tag along mainly because they don’t have the heart to say no (Biaggo is as blithely bizarre as Napoleon Dynamite and prone to popping up unexpectedly). The trio plans to hunt for and kill their own food, but quickly adapt to dumpster diving at a nearby Boston Market instead.
Their dwelling is banged together out of pieces of parts of anything they can find, including a port-a-toilet. Rising ingloriously from a clearing, it looks like Hushpuppy’s house from Beasts of the Southern Wild. On their first morning there, they awaken without clocks (all cell phones have been disposed of) and can only gauge the time by the height of the sun in the sky. As Joe squints upward, the joy of freedom is written on his face; the movie makes a convincing case that running away to live in the woods is the best way to spend a summer. In theory this is a coming-of-age story, but what makes these teenagers so endearing is seeing what young boys they are, whether they’re attempting to trap animals or spooked by noises in the night.
Robinson has a reoccurring role on the TV series Melissa & Joey but this is his first feature film. He has the infectious grin of a young Matthew Broderick— the similarities between them might be distracting if it weren’t such a pleasure to be reminded of what it was like to discover that earlier cheeky grin back in the WarGames, Project X and Ferris Bueller era. And that probably won’t be an issue for The Kings of Summer’s most likely demographic. The movie was written and directed by a couple of relative newcomers—Jordan Vogt-Robert, a TV director making his feature-film debut; and Chris Galletta, previously a staff writer on The Late Show with David Letterman)—who have imbued their coming-of-age story with the kind of refreshingly authentic voice that should make The Kings of Summer a natural draw for younger audiences.
No one ever explains what Biaggo is running away from, aside from being the resident geek of the small-town high school, but for Joe and Patrick, it’s all about their parents. Patrick’s are over-nurturers, a sensitive father (Marc Evan Jackson) who is forever standing on the bottom stairs to his basement, wistfully wanting to be a part of his son’s life and a helicopter mom (Megan Mullally) who compulsively nags and offers things no self-respecting teen wants, be it vegetable soup or a cold washcloth on a hot day. “Even when I’m an adult she’ll find me, question me,” Patrick tells Joe.
For Joe it’s more complicated; his mother is recently
deceased and his father Frank (Nick Offerman) is too gruff to give him the sympathy he needs. When Frank and Joe spar, which they do frequently and only verbally, Joe has taken to calling the cops to complain that he’s being abused. The same droll duo, played by Thomas Middleditch and Mary Lynn Rajskub, appear throughout the movie. Offerman is something of an acquired taste but anyone who adores him on Parks and Recreation, where he plays a Lou Grant to Amy Poehler’s Mary Tyler Moore, will relish his exchanges with these bumbling local cops. “Mr. Toy, are you familiar with boy who cried wolf?” inquires Middleditch’s rookie. ”Yes,” Frank answers with that classic Offerman deadpan. “I experienced a childhood on the planet Earth.” This comic actor throws his lines down and watches them soar. He’s like a man wielding the hammer at a carnival’s strongman attraction; the bell nearly always gets to the top.
Despite all it has going for it, The Kings of Summer ultimately runs into dramatic tension problem in its last act. Three boys having the times of their life in the woods — and then what? In lieu of the Stand By Me dead body, the filmmakers introduce danger in the form of a woodsy encounter with rather literal symbol for manhood, and trouble in the form of a girl, Kelly (Erin Moriarty), Joe’s good friend and possibly unrequited love. The buildup has been so enticing that it’s easy enough to drift along with this slight, quirky charmer and when the puffed-up dramatic stuff gives way to the central theme of a father and son reconnecting, the film really works.
(READ: A Q&A with Megan Mullally)