Off The Grid With A Grin
DIRECTED BY JORDAN VOGT-ROBERTS/2013
I am convinced Ohio is the ideal state. The Plato’s chair of provinces. A canton of 10,000 perfectly normal, perfectly small towns where a boy can become a man, or at least become a slightly older boy. Adventure is a creek away, there’s always a parade on Main Street, and fireflies light the way to the next town hall meeting (*cue John Cougar Mellencamp). In a perfect world, we were all supposed to have grown up in Ohio, elbow deep in Monopoly games, life lessons, and Boston Market dinners. And thus, the fable-like Kings of Summer makes complete sense in the fantastical middle-America earth that is Ohio.
Adolescent Joe Toy (Nick Robinson) is fed up with the gloomy regime of his father Frank (Nick Offerman). Game nights have become more sequestration than diversion; dinners have become minefields of passive-aggression. In defiance, Joe recruits his friends Patrick (Gabriel Basso) and Biaggio (Moises Arias) to abandon their air-conditioned, regimented lives and join him in the wild, shimmering Ohio forests. There they build a shanty castle far from rules and expectations, close to fancy and freewill. Here they can rule, living off the land and experimenting with facial hair.
The farce at the center of Kings of Summer—that three boys accomplish the Macguyver-like feat of constructing a two story house out of spare parts—helps ground the characters’ poignant observations in a more whimsical and humorous world.
But alas, they are men without women. It’s not long before love interest Kelly (Erin Moriarty) visits and creates dissent in the group, as hormones are hormones, and coming of age movies are coming of age movies. The adults scramble to find their children, but the search seems in vain, and they are left to commiserate in their failures as parents.
Now, if this reminds you of last year’s indie run-away-from-home-to-live-in-the-forest-coming-of-age film Moonrise Kingdom, it should. Little is original about Jordan Vogt-Roberts directorial debut, but the characters are so endearing and the photography so mesmerizing that you can forgive Kings’ passing resemblance to Kingdom and others in the pantheon of teen runaway melodramas. Furthermore, where Kingdom is glum, Kings is glee. The farce at the center of Kings of Summer—that three boys accomplish the Macguyver-like feat of constructing a two story house out of spare parts—helps ground the characters’ poignant observations in a more whimsical and humorous world.
Kings of Summer also lives in a beautiful world. Jordan Vogt-Roberts has directed a drop dead gorgeous film and he knows it. So, in the tradition of indulgent debut directors before him, he neglects to trim the fat. The Phantom camera use borders on gluttonous; the montages become monotonous—there are only so many golden hour shots of nature you can gather before it looks like Terrence Malick’s summer vacation. Still, the aesthetic ease with which Kings of Summer blooms is impossible to deny; like the model who rolls out of bed at noon to win a beauty pageant at one.
Chris Galletta’s fresh script is similarly effortless, though spottier. Some scenes shine with wit; others are absurd and seemingly improvised. Most of the absurdity is courtesy of Biaggio, the mononymous, oddball sidekick of the teen trio. He is an androgynous, uncomfortable presence, in the same lineage as McLovin from Superbad and Alan from The Hangover, except even more prone to awkwardness. Nick Offerman’s Frank is basically a mopey Ron Swanson, and that’s perfectly fine. As is typical in runaway teen movies, he and his missing son experience more growth while apart than while they were together. The dialogue is lazy at times—“my rules, my house” during a parent/child argument seems like placeholder text—but there are still moments of particular inspiration. In what amounts to a turning point for the character, Frank, after reflecting on why everyone abandons him, asks his daughter, “Am I a bastard?” She wryly quips, “No, a bastard would want everyone else to be miserable just because he is.”
Ultimately, Kings of Summer is the gangly middle-schooler of summer movies: constantly trying to impress its audience with quirkiness and skill, rather than having the confidence to just sit still and be what it is: a fun, often funny frolic through the woods. It might be a little pretentious and not all that original, but Kings of Summer is more than enjoyable company for a lazy summer afternoon.