As kids, many of us wanted nothing more than to be treated like an adult. Of course, the cruelty of age is that as adults we often pine for the freedom of being a kid. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts connects to both of these wishes, each vividly informing his first feature film The Kings of Summer. The story of this Sundance standout centers on three boys who want to rush into manhood - or at the very least escape the rule of their parents. So, they run away into the woods for the summer, and build their own house where they will rule. An instant classic in the vein of Stand By Me, The Kings of Summer perfectly captures the feel of restless youth, from the glory of idle summer days to the mind-melting frustration of parents trying to "get" you. And it may well be the best movie of the year.
Nick Robinson makes his film debut as Joe Toy, a 16-year-old with big ideas who is plagued by his recently widowed father's grim form of overbearing. Gabriel Basso (The Big C) plays his long-time best friend Patrick, whose parents are so loving and overly attentive that it is literally giving him hives. Joe and Patrick decide to build their dream house, a place where they will make the rules, and live free all summer long! And somewhere along the way an odd duck of a boy named Biaggio (Moises Arias) finds his way into their plan, and with him he brings some of the movies most hilarious moments.
When it comes to movies about adolescents, filmmakers can often fall into schmaltzy sentimentalism, overwrought melodrama, or a self-defeating attempt to nail an aggressively "cool" tone. But Vogt-Roberts avoids all of these pitfalls, making Patrick and Joe's gripes totally relatable, then weaving the bizarre Biaggio into their story to keep things light and a little unpredictable. The tone is vibrant and humorous, radiating a sense of youth. And as the camera shows us the boys testing their physical limits (with punching games) or wandering through the wilderness in slo-motion, we get to revel in the breath of summer days where time seemed endless yet fleeting.
Another trick of teen-centered movies is relying on young actors. Can someone so young successfully shoulder a movie? In The Kings of Summer, Robinson, Basson and Arias do so with aplomb. As awkward, patchy facial hair sprouts on their boyish faces, Joe, Patrick and Biaggio confront conflicts about house chores, friendship and girls. Along this journey, its stars never make a misstep. Every emotion feels raw and earned, never forced. A long take where Robinson conveys heartbreak over what must be the longest night of Joe's life is one of the most powerful moments, not just in this film, but in the cannon of teen movies. Even for all his oddness, Biaggio gets moments of relatable drama. But as a comedic sidekick, Arias is a total scene-stealer who demands to be put in more movies. Immediately.
Peppered with noteworthy TV stars, the supporting cast is likewise dazzling. Parks and Recreation's Nick Offerman plays Joe's father, and his growling frustration and lack of patience for idiocy makes him formidable and hilarious much like his television character Ron Swanson. Megan Mullally and Marc Evan Jackson play Patrick's parents, and their patter about movies and girls as they attempt to converse with their son is delightfully out of touch and daffy. When they describe Will Smith as "the new Prince" (assuming mistaking "the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air"), I laughed so hard I choked. Plus, their devoted chipperness plays perfectly off of Offerman's dedicated gruffness. Small appearances are made by Community's Alison Brie as Joe's out-of-the-house older sister, Eugene Cordero as her over-eager boyfriend, Mary Lynn Rajskub and Thomas Middlemitch as cutup cops, and Kumail Nanjiani as a argumentative delivery guy. Each brings a bit of color to this lively adventure. Erin Moriarty deserves a special mention for her elegant turn as Joe's dream girl, Kelly. Rather than allowing her to be some idea of perfection - a crush personified - Chris Galletta's script and Moriarty's performance make Kelly a three-dimensional character who exists beyond being a plot point or motivation.
The Kings of Summer is the perfect summer movie. It's cinematography gorgeously captures not only the film's pitch-perfect performances, but also the landscapes of wilderness that so enchant its heroes, and, by extension, the audience. Vogt-Roberts direction never minimalizes his characters to devices, allowing each to appear a bit ridiculous, but also deeply human. Even the art design deserves accolades, as little details of the characters clothes or sets feel carefully considered, providingcharacter clues and a fuller feel to this film's world (a favorite bit of business involves a size sticker Biaggio has forgotten to remove from some new shorts.) The dialogue is well-crafted, balancing character and plot development with well-suited and sidesplitting jokes, and its finale is well paced and satisfying. Thinking it over, yeah, The Kings of Summer is the best film of the year.
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