Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ The Kings of Summer is an excellent first film. As with many debut works, it features a coming of age story that, though somewhat conventional by nature, is elevated by quirky humor, engaging performances, and a creative cinematic eye. Following teenagers Joe (Nick Robinson), Patrick (Gabriel Basso), and Biaggio (Moises Arias) as they build a house in the woods and live away from their suffocating parents, there’s no shortage of fun. In line with other fresh voices, however, much of this fun ultimately comes off as limited with the resultant one-note characters making the film feel longer than its 95 minutes.
Working from a script by Chris Galletta, Vogt-Roberts joyfully builds a world of disillusioned high schoolers and clueless adults. Honest in its mouthiness, the film isn’t afraid to tell it like it is and the unexpected verbal barbs inspire steady laughs, primarily through the aforementioned parent-child conflicts. Joe and his father Frank (Nick Offerman) are constantly at odds and seemingly have been since the death of Joe’s mother. On the other end of the spectrum, Patrick’s parents (Megan Mullally and Marc Evan Jackson) operate as if on another planet, saying and doing annoying things oblivious to their son’s feelings and chastising him when he replies with anything but strict compliance. Under such a ridiculous (and, frankly, unrealistic) regime, it’s a wonder that Patrick hasn’t run off earlier and all the more rewarding to witness his escape.
Though the dialogue and actions that arise from these central dramas remain fresh, they’re essentially singular traits and don’t have much of a story to back them up. Such shortcomings likewise extend to Biaggio, who’s both The Kings of Summer’s standout comedic creation and a clear sign of promising yet fledgling writing. Unlike his comrades, no reason is provided for Biaggio’s presence (beyond Joe’s fear of what might happen if he asks the machete-wielding tagalong to leave), his home life is given only a brief, barely informative glimpse, and few personal details exist beyond his reputation as the school weirdo. His unpredictable antics in the forest may be wildly funny, but in time this behavior feels increasingly like the same solid gag recycled to the point of blandness.
And yet The Kings of Summer rolls on, confident in its story and intent on making the most of the circumstance. Fortifying the vicarious charms of his film’s childhood fantasy with a frequent, alluring use of slo-mo, Vogt-Roberts makes the dream seem possible despite the overarching Into The Wild naiveté of surviving on one’s own away from society. When the realities of life inevitably come to light, they’re folded in with a maturity and focus previously foreign to the somewhat childish script. While these adult turns can’t quite atone for the ennui caused by its increasingly tiresome characters, they provide the film with a key missing piece and hint at bigger things from its creators, both of whose careers are well worth watching.
Rated R for language and some teen drinking.
The Kings of Summer is currently playing at the Carolina Cinemas on Hendersonville Rd.