The Kings of Summer
3 out of 4 stars
It took forever and a day, but the fledgling CBS Films studio has finally made a movie worthy of our time and emotional investment. Sharing part of its title and a lot of the same wide-eyed, slightly skewed wonderment with the far more realized "Moonrise Kingdom," "The Kings of Summer" occasionally strays into the twee ditch but always rights itself with some apropos "Superbad" attitude.
Also sharing minor thematic overlap with "American Graffiti" and "Stand by Me," "Summer" captures with deft accuracy what happens when the temperature rises, adolescent boys dream lustfully about girls and imagine life without their bothersome parents. The film sometimes misses the mark but never for lack of sincerity and when it clicks (which is often), it is a bittersweet reminder of how being younger and often wrong can be preferable to being older and sometimes right.
Written by a rookie (Chris Galletta) and directed by another (Jordan Vogt-Roberts), "Summer" puts its emphasis on not what it says but more on how it is said. Dialogue that probably looked downright mundane on the page becomes immensely resonant when spoken and the actors delivering it do so with a casual ease that belies effort. It is as if the performers were given "situations" -- as with a Christopher Guest mockumentary -- and told to improvise. Whether that is the case or not is immaterial; that's how it all seems to play out on screen, which is great -- it's all very (pardon the term) organic.
At the center of the story is Joe (Nick Robinson), a handsome young man with soft features who is reminiscent of Ashton Kutcher during the early "That '70s Show" years. Haphazardly juggling insolence, self-doubt, resentment and cocky charm, Joe is angry that his father, Frank (Nick Offerman, "Parks and Recreation"), is still angry that his wife died. Frank talks -- rather, speaks down -- to Joe and his sister Heather (Alison Brie) in a manner he believes to be firmly comforting but in actuality is a father treating his children like poor-performing hired help he can't fire.
After walking through a patch of woods not far from his home, Joe gets divine inspiration and comes up with an idea that any former '60s hippie would relish. He'll run away from home, make do with what he can find (or questionably "obtain") and live off of the land. In order to accomplish this, he'll need the assistance of Patrick (Gabriel Basso), a semi-jock type who gets a case of the hives every time his insensitive, blunt-speaking parents open their unfiltered mouths.
Initially reticent, Patrick goes along with the iffy plan, but before he and Joe even break ground, they are joined by Biaggio (Moises Arias), a diminutive guy who could either be another teen or a 40-year-old midget. He's short but also has adult features and could have easily been cast in "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy without much additional hair or makeup work.
The fourth principal is Heather (Erin Moriarty), a comely young lass who is the apple of Joe's eye, but -- wouldn't you know it -- isn't aware of his feelings for her or isn't interested. Or she does know and still isn't interested. Or she might be interested but has no intention of letting him know. Whatever the case, he's a discombobulated mess made all the worse by Heather's liking of his plan but her flat refusal to actually join him. She'll stick her toe in the water now and then -- which means she'll show up once in a while and hang out but won't give up the safe confines of her home with all of that free Internet access, comfy hot meals and such.
After lots of first- and second-act exposition that often provides considerable flavor without delivering any actual substance, the third act kicks in with supreme attitude. The fallout from everyone's decisions reaches a head as expectations are brought down to Earth and reality takes the inside poll in the metaphoric race. There are conclusions and non-conclusions presented side by side that, in a traditional narrative, would be construed as unfulfilling but in this film built on atmosphere and attitude, it all fits quite well.
"The Kings of Summer" won't likely win any awards, show up on many year-end best-of lists and might just barely clear a profit, but it will provide a worthy springboard for all of its previously unknown stars and filmmakers. View it as a high-end student film where everyone who participated will move on to bigger, though not necessarily better things. (CBS Films)