I can’t help but think how great the film could have been, if only it were more comfortable in its own skin.
The Kings of Summer
There are a lot of wonderful components at work in Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ feature debut— a savvy, clever screenplay, gorgeous nature-porn cinematography, a heaping helping of ‘80s nostalgia, and a genuinely funny cast—he just doesn’t quite fit them together. Every scene works in the moment, but when I took a step back from The Kings of Summer, I noticed how disjointed and shoddily constructed the production is. Vogt-Roberts aims for profundity but misses the mark as his fondness for improv-heavy long-takes and sheer outlandishness dulls the impact of the moments that engage the heart.
Chris Galletta’s screenplay is familiar material, a tale of youthful independence painted with glistening ‘80s nostalgia that invites comparison to its coming-of-age-movie older brothers (Stand By Me, Lord of the Flies), but it lacks their substance. Joe Toy (Nick Robinson), is a wiseass teen with a dad (Nick Offerman, Parks and Recreation) who’s been a verbally abusive asshole to Joe ever since his wife died. Joe has a dream of independence, of breaking free from his dad and living on his own. Joe’s a doer, so he makes this happen. He builds a shabby dumpster-hut of a house in the woods just outside of town with his best friend Patrick (Gabriel Basso) who is equally enthusiastic about escaping the clutches of his overprotective all-American parents (played by comedy vets Megan Mullally and Marc Evan Jackson). Their tiny alien/cartoon-like friend Biaggio (Moises Arias) tags along for the ride, a strange creature of a kid who spews the most random (and hilarious) one-liners I’ve heard in a long time. The merry trio live the dream, roaring and romping and stomping through the wilderness, jumping into lakes (in slow motion), living off the land (and a nearby Boston Market) and never bathing or shaving.
As I mentioned earlier, Joe’s a go-getter, so now that he’s made his first dream a reality it’s on to the next one. He invites his crush, Kelly (Erin Moriarty) out to the playhouse in hopes of working his sunglass-suave charm on her. His ploy to kindle a summer fling doesn’t play out as she falls for Patrick, the Cameron to Joe’s Bueller. The rift that forms between the best buds eventually shatters the dreams that Joe worked so hard to make real. All the while, the parents search for the boys and search themselves for the reason they drove their sons away.
What shines about The Kings of Summer is its cast, who all hit homeruns from top to bottom. Robinson hangs with the hilariously boorish and grumpy Offerman like a pro—their verbal assaults on each other are equally gut-busting. Arias is funny as hell as the out-of-this-world Biaggio, really digging into bizarre lines like “I met a dog the other day that taught me how to die”. You need to embrace your role to make lines like that work, and everybody in the film attacks with the same level of commitment.
What’s problematic is that I went from laughing out loud at Biaggio’s slapstick to staring blankly at sobering, out of place, Malick-ian montages of the kids basking in sun-soaked tall grass and splashing around in a pastoral river. In a later scene a random ‘totally wasted’ couple sloppily attempts to screw in that same river, and we’re back to slapstick again. The montages are actually quite pretty, and the drunk couple scene is funny, but they feel like they belong to different movies.
There is a lot to enjoy in The Kings of Summer, but there is also a lot to be desired. The cast’s spot-on performances are worth the price of admission, but I can’t help but think how great the film could have been, if only it were more comfortable in its own skin.