It is a blessing and a curse to be a teenager with a wayward imagination, the former because even the most mundane objects in life can be imbued with some sense of mystery and wonder, and the latter because the more fantastical you make the world, the more let down you’ll be when reality sets in. Joe Toy, the protagonist of the delightful and surprising new film The Kings of Summer, is one such teenager, attempting to assert his masculinity in a world that has become too constricting, too rule-driven. Like most cocksure kids, he’s carefree and overconfident up until the moment that he’s pulled down to Earth once more. Because so much of The Kings of Summer ends up being filtered through Joe’s eyes, there are radical shifts in tone, but shifts that end up making sense even as they wound our lead character.
Joe (Nick Robinson) is a 15-year old desperate to break out of his stifling Ohio homestead, run by his gruff, widower father Frank (Nick Offerman). Joe’s best friend Patrick (Gabriel Basso) is equally happy to get away from his doting, clueless parents (Megan Mullally and Marc Evan Jackson), and so the two boys, along with a local oddball kid (Moises Arias), decide to run away to the woods. Once there, they build a makeshift home in a small clearing in the forest, living off the land as best they can. Of course, for this trio of suburbanite teens, living off the land includes making frequent stops at the Boston Market that’s only a stone’s throw away, and horsing around in the serenity of the natural world, oblivious to the fact that their parents have brought the police in to find their missing children.
The Kings of Summer hits a few familiar beats in the coming-of-age genre, but it excels precisely because of its unpredictable and winning execution. In a number of montages, all of which are hypnotic, swaying microcosms of juvenilia, the film calls to mind nothing short of the seminal comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, as Joe, Patrick, and the strange Biaggo bounce through nature, carefree and childlike in their discovery. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, making his feature debut, presents to us an inviting landscape, in striking, vibrant fashion. Roberts is able to do so both in Joe’s fractured psyche—the way he pictures the beautiful classmate he lusts after, as well as the perceived opposition of this crush from his father—and in the beauty of this peaceful forest the boys giddily trample through. Vogt-Roberts employs a lot of stylistic tricks, from slow-motion to dolly zooms, that may not feel at home in a raucous teen dramedy but make the movie stand out in the right way. We have seen the fast-talking, cocky teen, his big-hearted friend, and the non-sequitur machine before; thanks in part to the direction, though, The Kings of Summer feels pleasantly different.
Something else that separates this movie from others in the genre is that it is explosively funny. Chris Galletta, also making his feature debut, has crafted an intelligent, perceptive script that avoids excessive exposition in favor of natural, unforced character interactions. You could wonder, with the quick-witted ensemble cast, a few of whom are stand-up comics by trade, if some of the dialogue-heavy scenes were partially improvised. Whether Frank’s frustrated back-and-forth with a Chinese-food delivery guy, or Patrick’s mom sniping at a local cop were on the page or thought up on the fly, it doesn’t really matter. The Kings of Summer is, in these moments, funny not because Nick Offerman or Megan Mullally are inherently gifted comic performers working within the confines of a plot, but because what they’re saying is genuinely, unexpectedly witty.
The adults shoulder most of the subplots, and do well, but The Kings of Summer would not work if the trio of young men at its heart wasn’t equally talented. Robinson, especially, has to shoulder much of the dramatic heft of what’s a fairly sad young man, so bereft of the grounding force his mother represented that he can’t imagine living in a place dominated by someone who so tacitly refuses to understand or acknowledge his angsty issues. Joe is smart and driven, but his choices in the third act remind us that he’s still a kid who’s somewhat lost when left to his own devices. Basso, as Joe’s more levelheaded pal, has a slightly thankless role, the middle child of the trio who fades into the background while the lead or the goofball take the stage. Still, he relays another difficulty of being a teenager, surrounded by overly sincere and unaware adults, and unable to channel his frustration productively. Arias, as the aggressively quirky Biaggo, inches right to the edge of cartoonish flamboyance but never crosses it. Biaggo is essentially a tougher, younger version of Brick Tamland, but funny’s funny.
And The Kings of Summer is consistently very funny, as well as a perceptive look at the highs and lows of surviving a childhood armed only with determination and imagination. Joe Toy sees the forest in the first act of the film, and assumes that he can assert his dominance and will over the land simply because he is man. Joe does, with the help of his friends, start successfully, but eventually, slowly, the real world creeps into his perfect, ramshackle natural lifestyle, cracks in the façade he tries so desperately to maintain. Joe, Patrick, and Biaggo do become the kings of summer in their tiny fiefdom, but only for a short while. Their bittersweet journey, along with the undercurrent of clever humor, is what makes The Kings of Summer so special.
— Josh Spiegel