The Kings of Summer is a Coming of Age Tale with Sitcom Influences

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The Kings of Summer
Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Written by Chris Galleta
2013, USA

The Kings of Summer is a coming of age film born from the spirit of the American sitcom. Built on the public’s enduring obsession with what it means to be a man, the film undercuts the self-seriousness of this notion through its use of sitcom-branded comedy. The film depicts the story of three teenage boys who are tired of their oppressive parents, so they find an isolated pocket in the forest to build themselves a house where they plan to live off the land.

Though we hardly see mention of television in The Kings of Summer, it’s small American town setting is reminiscent of so many sitcom backdrops. The very soul of the town centred on the fact that it is so generic and isolated: it is one white picket fence short of an outright parody of small-town life. In many ways, the film almost seems to transport the audience to a more innocent time and place, the film sharing more in common with episode of Leave it to Beaver than anything contemporary. It’s greatest association with the sitcom is, without a doubt,  in it’s casting choices. The film is raised several bars through the presence and performances of sitcom favourites like Nick Offerman, Megan Mullaly and to a lesser extent Alison Brie. Both Offerman and Mullaly bring weight to the parodies they are playing. Among the boys, the stand-out performer is Moises Arias as Biaggio whose background is similarly rooted in the sitcom, playing audience favourites on both Hannah Montana and Wizards of Waverly Place. I have little doubt, that any popularity the film will find will rest firmly on the eccentricity and absurdism of Biaggio, who offers an essential counter-point to the film’s pointed normality.

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Also, much like the sitcom, the film offers a rather pat conclusion and the character’s psychological transformations are ultimately underscored by the re-establishment of the status quo. When all is said and done, nothing really changes. The characters go through a journey of survival in order to find happiness and comfort with the lives they already had. This is not necessarily a draw-back and many great narratives utilize a similar structure, unfortunately their transformation hardly comes at a great price. With exception of one character in particular, there is not real sense of loss or struggle and they never really earn their status of hero in the Joseph Campbell journey of life.

I have to give the filmmakers credit for the film’s construction, which is imaginative without being overtly showy. They bring some personality to the narrative flow through playful editing and dreamy cinematography. Often playing with point of view, the film shines it’s brightest when it self-consciously acknowledges that it is presenting little more than the follies of youth and how innocence and ignorance can become powerful forces in building misplaced contempt. By misplaced, I only mean that the boys are too young or too confused to understand that their rebellion is in no way in any direct conflict with the ideas or structures they are fighting against. The boys abandon patriarchal life in order to establish a failed but nonetheless hyper-masculinized version of these very concepts. Predictably, the characters have little to no understanding as to what they are fighting against and why they are fighting, so they repeat the same mistakes as their parents.

Never really elevating itself above pleasant, the film makes for good background noise. It is harmless and cute without being cloying. The Kings of Summer will sure to find an audience and those who relate more closely to small-time life and the pitfalls of becoming a man might draw more from it then I did. The film seems built on being a crowd-pleaser but as a result lacks a punch of authenticity.

– Justine Smith

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