Kings of Summer is nothing new, but its strange vibe is worth a mention.
Coming-of-age films seem like a dime-a-dozen these days: The Way, Way Back, and the much better Moonrise Kingdom are only a few of the seemingly endless efforts to cash in 80's classics like The Breakfast Club, St. Elmo's Fire, and Better Off Dead. Add a new player to that field in The Kings of Summer, a comedy that's restless, slightly engaging, and weird in its treatment of teenage male unrest.
The teenager Joe (Nick Robinson) is tired; he and his recently-separated father Frank (Nick Offerman) are just not connecting. Their game night of Monopoly turns into quest for power in the home, leaving Joe embarrassed and angry at Frank's gravitas. On the way back from a outdoor party with third-wheel oddity Biaggio (Moises Arias), the two stumble upon the perfect place to build a cabin. It's quiet, removed from society, and the perfect place to hide from unsympathetic and uncaring parents. Joe's best friend Patrick (Gabriel Busso, Super 8) can't wait to escape the demands of his 'helicopter parents,' and soon the trio construct their own Fortress of Solitude using outhouse doors and wood from a building site. While Joe's friend Kelly (Erin Moriarty, The Watch) promises to keep the location a secret, a love triangle soon forms around her, Joe, and Nick while Biaggio plays jungle explorer, camouflaged chipmunk, and Kung-Fu dancer. As the parents struggle to find their children, the boys soon learn that being masters of your own destiny does come at a price.
To say Kings is strange is probably giving it too much credit, but there are scenes that reminded me of the old Fox Television show Parker Lewis Can't Lose, with its imagined conflicts, odd camera angles, and quirky almost psychotic co-stars. Biaggio is hilarious as the oddball who seems to exist in another world. The problem is this goofiness is marked by a much deeper story about teenagers finding themselves, which doesn't jive at all with what's really a series of funny vignettes by two-dimensional characters. And while the disconnect shared by our two sets of parents is enjoyable, they do nothing to further the story. We honestly don't feel for them as they fruitlessly search for their children; and when they return home, we're not happy for them. This surely isn't Superbad and perhaps newcomer Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts didn't intend for it to be; but when you can emerge from a theater able to quote other titles which have done this formula better, it's hard to support the one you just watched.
Roberts does paint a pretty picture, basking our teenagers in soft greens and browns and making us think if only for a moment that anyone could survive in the great outdoors. But it's screenwriter Chris Galletta who fails to close the door on the deal by forgetting to bring those warm heartfelt moments of self-discovery in line with the strange comedic elements that permeate nearly every scene. The hidden gem here is Arias, whose Biaggo is as odd an oddball that we've seen this year. He alone keeps this movie afloat comedy-wise, but in doing so helps to cheapen the whole reason why the trio leave their homes in the first place. It would have been so satisfying to learn why these kids feel such strong emotions of disconnect with their families rather than to be filled up with pretty pictures and funny interludes. Had Summer set its sights a little higher, we could have had a new Breakfast Club. Robinson and Basso are good young actors who aren't terrific here, especially when it comes to a couple of serious moments. Their growth by film's end feels out of place, with no consequences for their running away, and a new relationship that actually creates a love triangle whose resolution is two boys nodding at each other as the credits roll.
Like eating your favorite comfort food, you will emerge from The Kings of Summer with a warm, happy feeling. And just like those meals that remind us of our youth, those memories will soon fade away, replaced by needs of something more substantial in your movie diet. The Kings of Summer is rated a surprising R and has a runtime of 93 minutes.
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