Film Review: The Kings of Summer

With its verve, freshness, laughs and effective moments of rue, this youthful idyll is the perfect summer movie for 2013.

I’m sure for many of us, the single most magical word of our childhood was “fort,” and the vistas of youthful ownership, independence and territorialism it conjured. In The Kings of Summer, the characters are well into adolescence, but that allure remains potent, especially in light of the miserable home lives Joe (Nick Robinson) and Patrick (Gabriel Basso) lead, with a macho, ultimate tough-love kind of dad (Nick Offerman) and hovering, castrating helicopter parents (Megan Mullally and Marc Evan Jackson), respectively.

When these adults become too stiflingly overbearing, the boys find a secluded spot in the forest and, with the help of instructive library books, construct a ramshackle but nonetheless real alternate school-break home for themselves. Appearing from nowhere and suddenly joining them is a tiny, eccentric kid named Biaggio (Moises Arias, monumentally weird, but a great little dancer). The trio resolves to go back to nature and eschew modern conveniences, but when a nearby Boston Market is discovered by Joe and Biaggio, this idealistic, “manly” vow trembles on the brink.

Working with Chris Galletta’s disarming, quirky and often very funny script, Jordan Vogt-Roberts creates a coming–of-age tale which, while occasionally whimsically veering off into the land of twee, nevertheless mostly feels bracingly fresh. Joe’s deadpan lines, full of devastatingly pithy observations about grown-up weirdness—some of which he will evince himself over this crucial summer—contribute much of the humor, but those monstrously comic parents also provide risible gold. Offerman delivers a gruff, quietly side-splitting performance, while Mullally and Jackson have a field day, hilariously chastising poor Patrick in the most cheerful, chipper way bound to produce maximum humiliation for their son.

Ross Riege’s beautiful, sylvan photography makes a lush paradise out of what is probably the most ordinary of wooded plots in the middle of suburbia, while Ryan Miller’s music hits all the right dramatic notes, with blessed subtlety.

This manly idyll is disrupted by the appearance of Kelly (Erin Moriarty), whom Joe really likes, but who takes up with Patrick instead. Robinson’s performance switches gears, going from antically farcical to heartbreaking, and this talented, ultra-ingratiating actor modulates it with admirable grace and skill. (He also manages to make a barely-there teen moustache look rather devastatingly attractive.) However, the boys’ friendship holds up, and the rueful yet touching ending is a sweetly orchestrated, literal flip that is the perfect kiss-off—with a classic feel—to a film which made me smile a lot more than many of recent memory. (I vastly preferred it to Wes Anderson’s arch Moonrise Kingdom, which had similar themes.) In its depiction of youthful anomie and its attendant, necessary escapism, although very different and far less verbose, The Kings of Summer has something of the memorably lyrical quality of Carson McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding.