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Review: “The Kings of Summer” Reigns Supreme

by on May 31, 2013

The coming-of-age movie is certainly nothing new, nor is the semi-raunchy teen comedy, though I can’t remember the last time either made me feel as though I really were a high schooler again, trying desperately to be a grown up but lashed firmly under my parents’ roof. Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ new film The Kings of Summer has reawakened in me this feeling, and the wonder of discovery and heartbreak of love lost that went along with it. That it’s also incredibly funny is also a big factor.

The film tells the story of Joe (Nick Robinson), a smart but aimless 15 year old who lives in the suburbs with his single father, Frank (Nick Offerman). Frank and Joe have a combative relationship to say the least, exemplified by a game of Monopoly with Joe’s older sister (Alison Brie) and her boyfriend (Eugene Cordero) which results in the police being called. The police in the film, by the way, are played by Mary Lynn Rajskub and Thomas Middleditch.

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Joe’s best friend Patrick (Gabriel Basso) is having similar issues with his parents (Megan Mullally and The Thrilling Adventure Hour‘s Marc Evan Jackson) who are overly concerned with every moment of their son’s life. “Hovering” is the word that best describes them. Both kids want to get out from under their parents’ boots, and so Joe devises a plan to run away into a clearing in the woods and build themselves a house. They’re joined by Biaggio (Moises Arias), the local creepy kid, and the trio embark on an adventure of living off the land and being their own men. Of course, their parents are looking for them every minute, and when the girl Joe likes (Erin Moriarty) gets involved, things become less idyllic than they once were.

The first thing to be said about this movie is that it’s both hilarious and realistic. The script for the film was written by first-time screenwriter Chris Galletta, who infuses it with irreverence but also a real sense of heart. We truly get the feeling these boys care about each other in a deep, fraternal way, which makes it all the more heartbreaking when trust is betrayed. The same is true for the parents. It would be very easy for them to be caricatures, and while Mullally and Jackson are certainly the more cartoonish, there’s nevertheless a realness to them once the kids go missing.

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The acting is all, across the board, phenomenal. All of the kids, none household names, are charismatic and talented enough to carry the story. Each brings a different set of skills to his role, and they are each believable and complex individuals. Their timing is amazing, and each know their place in the comedy of the piece. Even Biaggio, who is a nutter, becomes intensely likable as the action progresses. It’s the believability of the kids that allows us to buy the fact that they could commit to and build a house out of spare parts in a matter of a few days.

I want to give a special mention to Nick Offerman. Obviously, everyone loves him for his work on Parks and Recreation, and he’s playing a similar, if less laconic, version here as the sarcastic dad. It would be very easy for him just to be the surly blowhard, but he actually gets one of the biggest journeys in the film, going from being totally at odds with his son, to realizing how much he needs him. It’s a more nuanced character than we’ve gotten to see Offerman play in quite a long while, and it was refreshing.

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The direction is without a doubt one of the keys to this movie’s success. Jordan Vogt-Roberts is a veteran of directing, having done videos for Funny or Die and making short films and TV shows (including Comedy Central’s Mash Up; hear him on You Made it Weird and The Indoor Kids), but he’d never done a feature before. You wouldn’t know it by assertive way he constructs his scenes. It’s not shot the way most comedies are these days, and the forest in which the kids dwell has a texture and richness that one can feel just by watching it. It seems at once familiar and alien, the way it would to a 15 year old who’s decided to live there. It’s one of the few comedies I’ve seen that’s actually pretty to look at.

There is a timeless quality to The Kings of Summer that I hope lets it last for years to come. It’s a great time at the movies, which in the world of huge-budget effects-laden action flicks that are fun but disposable, is a welcome respite. It’s no surprise that it’s stayed with me longer than any of the tentpole movies that have come out this summer. In fact, when the movie was winding down, I began to feel sad that I’d be leaving this world and these characters; that’s what I call “fully immersive.”