Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Review: "The Kings of Summer"

A redolent back-to-nature manifesto mixed with an ironic teen romp, “The Kings of Summer” is a quirky, enjoyable rite-of-passage indie.

The characters are smarter and more perceptive than one usually sees in this sort of movie, which comes from a pair of feature film rookies: director Jordan Vogt-Roberts and screenwriter Chris Galletta. I see a bright future for both, based on their work here.

Joe and Patrick are lifelong best buddies who are annoyed to the extreme by their home life. So they decide to spend their summer before sophomore year as runaways – they build a ramshackle house in the woods and live there, becoming one with nature and growing into men at the same time.

Joe is played by Nick Robinson and Gabriel Basso plays Patrick. Both offer naturalistic, smart performances that resemble real teenagers, not the usual too-cool types who sound like every word out of their mouths has been penned for them.

Joe is the more outspoken of the two, who hatches the idea to live as wood kings. His mother died a few years ago and his sister (Alison Brie) is already past college and moving into a settled relationship. That leaves Joe to contend with his obnoxious father, Frank, played in full grouch mode by Nick Offerman.

Frank is the sort of guy whose acerbic sense of humor was probably once quite engaging, but it’s taken on a bitter, antagonistic flavor. Frank is deeply unhappy, and he’s doing a great job of making everyone around him the same.

“Look at it this way, in a few years he’s going to pay for you to leave,” Joe’s sister offers as consolation.
Patrick’s parents (Megan Mullally and Marc Evan Jackson) are nicer – too nice. They hover and fret like honeybees over a favored flower, which is so showered with attention it withers away. Patrick agrees to Joe’s plan not so much because he wants to live in the forest, but because anywhere else beats under their roof.

They construct a serviceable abode from spare parts – their front door is from a Port-a-Potty – and set up shop. Somewhere along the way they acquire a sidekick/mascot/hanger-on named Biaggio (Moises Arias), the strange runty kid from their class who speaks in odd declarative non-sequiturs. At first they worry about him killing them in their sleep, but before long Biaggio has become part of the troupe.

The trio of boy-men grow wispy beard-wannabes, bathe in the river and lackadaisically hunt animals with swords (for some reason, they have swords). Though when their food procuring efforts run dry, there’s a Boston Market a short hike away.

Things go alright for a while, with Frank and Patrick’s parents worked into a tizzy that would probably delight them if they were around to see it. But eventually the outside world must intrude, in the form of Kelly (a plucky Erin Moriarty), the girl who Joe is sweet on. She comes for a secret visit that spurs unforeseen complications.

The photography (by Ross Riege) is fantastic, and the by-play of dialogue is clever and biting. “The Kings of Summer” rides off the rails a little bit around two-thirds of the way through, as the story gets sidetracked into romantic turbulence that feels contrived. But like a gifted youth learning a new craft, the filmmakers right the ship and end their adventure on the right note.

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