The Kings of Summer (2013)
★★ / ★★★★
Ever since the death of his mother, there has been a mounting tension between Joe (Nick Robinson) and his father (Nick Offerman). The tipping point is when Frank brings home another woman and forces Joe to stay for game night–a special ritual that is supposed to be reserved for family. Joe, only fifteen, decides that he is moving out and going to be living in the woods. Further, he plans on living off the land. Patrick (Gabriel Basso), Joe’s best friend, and Biaggio (Moises Arias), an acquaintance, move in with him.
It is too bad that “The Kings of Summer,” written by Chris Galletta and directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts, is too often bogged down by lame attempts at comedy because the dramatic material has the potential to make an honest statement about alienated youth. As a result, the lack of a consistent and appropriate tone prevents us from fully connecting with it. The boys’ experience is treated more like a silly excursion rather than a meditation with an appropriate balance of gravity and subtle humor.
Arguably most frustrating is the parents walking around like cartoon characters. Like Joe, Patrick has his own reasons for wanting to run away: he is constantly under the watchful eye of his parents (Megan Mullally, Marc Evan Jackson). First, I found it interesting that they monitor him as if he had done something seriously wrong in the past. I wondered if Patrick had an attempted suicide or something of that sort. However, as the screenplay moves forward, the parents are not written beyond being caricatures in a bad sitcom. We never learn why they behave the way they do. It is critical that we discover something about them because they are a direct cause of their child’s unhappiness.
The same can be applied to Joe’s father. I enjoyed that once Joe has moved out, the material comes back to the father and we learn, in small and significant ways, why Joe cannot stand to be around him. During the final quarter of the picture, there is an attempt to make him more agreeable but I was not fooled. Frank is given no believable arc when it comes to his relationship with his son. There are two are three scenes showing him sitting all alone in the house but that is neither interesting nor insightful.
As for the boys playing house, there are a few amusing scenes scattered about but they, when taken together, are quite amorphous. It only gains a bit focus well past the halfway point when Joe invites Kelly (Erin Moriarty), a girl from school with whom he has a crush on, to his hideaway but, to his surprise, she ends up being more interested in Patrick. There is a nice balance of elegance and simplicity with regards to the triangle. I found myself feeling concerned about Joe and Patrick’s friendship. Is this something that will corrode the foundations of what they have?
“The Kings of Summer” offers a few glimpses of an honest coming-of-age picture. But in order for the material to have risen above mediocrity, the filmmakers needed to have spliced out elements that just do not fit tonally while making room for the requisite character development to make us understand all sides. While the awkward attempts to make us laugh might be mistaken for taking risks, they distract more than entertain.