Building a getaway cabin in the woods, Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ The Kings Of Summer sees males rutting and rebellious teenage dreamers turn from boys to men.
Teenage Kicks by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Summertime and the living is easy. And for US TV sitcom director Jordan Vogt-Roberts it’s time to spread his wings and take to the sky. And for his debut feature The Kings Of Summer he’s recruited veteran comedy actors Megan Mullally (Will And Grace) and Nick Offerman (Parks And Recreation) to help him take flight. There’s still plenty of mumble-core wisecracking, but structured around a Stand By Me premise of three boys (this time) leaving home and coming of age. Without the dark threads of a corpse hunt and alcoholic, criminal or abusive families, The Kings Of Summer is pretty lightweight by comparison with two boys desperate to get away from miserable or overprotective parents they’ve lost connection to and a gnomic infiltrator on hand for off-the wall laughs. But with Nick Robinson in the steely River Phoenix role, The Kings Of Summer has found a star on the ascendant.
School’s out for summer. Joe (Nick Robinson) has finished his woodwork assignment too late for grading (blackboards have already been abandoned to end-of-term hangman), but classroom crush Kelly (Erin Moriarty) has invited him to a party. He just has to get through “family night” with his dad Frank (Nick Offerman) and his new girlfriend, sister Heather and her singing boyfriend and a cutthroat game of Monopoly. Best friend Patrick (Gabriel Basso) is just as keen to skip town, driven to distraction by a stud wall testing dad and a vegetable soup mothering mum. And after stumbling on a clearing in the woods on the way home from the neighbourhood party with school oddball Biaggio (Moises Arias) the three boys decide to leave home, build a den and become men.
Like Sean Penn’s Into The Wild or Julian Pölsler’s The Wall, Jordan Vogt-Roberts’s The Kings Of Summer is a film that contemplates man’s primal urge to return to nature. And despite Joe’s success in spearing and skinning rabbits or showing the woodsmanly wherewithal to deal with a copperhead snake, there’s still something that smells like Disney teen comedy in its schoolboys in the woods scenario, its mawkish teen romance, its Swiss Family Robinson cabin (complete with get-out-of-bed-quick slide) and awkwardly stubbled adolescents. Ross Riege makes a stab at some large-screen luscious cinematography, with cornfield vistas and close-ups of flowers, but each striking sequence is a break with story The Kings Of Summer never quite pieces back together.
And therein lies the rusty snare at the heart of The Kings Of Summer, it’s both everything and nothing at once – an unbridgeable rift between father and son, a boyhood friendship sacrificed to a girl and a coming-of-age movie of a boy becoming a man. And with its double ending of reconciliation (between Joe and both his dad and Patrick) and a rather bland moral of forgiveness, The Kings Of Summer is hoisted by a petard of inconsequential one-liners. Like Frank, Jordan Vogt-Roberts’s film seizes every opportunity for a joke, especially through the character of Biaggio whose off-the-wall ‘quirk’ – like his sexuality, caught clumsily between cystic fibrosis and homosexuality – refuses interpretation, cinematic story sacrificed to surreal wisecracks.
The dangers of ill-placed comedy are even enacted in Chris Galletta’s strained script – Joe’s doleful dad is unable to stop wisecracking even when Biaggio is convulsing from a snake bite, his grumbling sass a barrier to both reality and relationships. The breakdown of the relationship between father and son is no doubt mutual – basted in masturbation jokes and board game one-upmanship – but it seems that all they need to mend the rift is a son grown-up enough to protect a feckless girl from a snake and a proud father’s pat on the back before they’re trading one-that-got-away stories as equals.
There are great moments in The Kings Of Summer – such as the dads’ fishing trip of stories about their sons is both an affecting evocation of the power of the boys’ friendship but also revealing of how they see their sons and are proud of them. The performances, while unbalanced are all spot-on, let down by some off-target jokes and a clichéd story. But nevertheless, Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ The Kings Of Summer is an enjoyably nostalgic vision of adolescence and its toils that make the living anything but easy.
The Kings Of Summer is released on 23rd August 2013 in the UK