Movie review by Greg Carlson
A safe and toothless coming-of-age story that leisurely juggles a teenage love triangle, a strained father-son relationship, and all the “how to be a man” cliches that go along with the genre territory, “The Kings of Summer” uses several of the same key components explored to more satisfying and sophisticated effect in “Moonrise Kingdom” and “Mud.” Blending the kids-run-away-from home plot (without any of the urgency or wistfulness of Wes Anderson’s terrific film) and the it’s-hard-growing-up liminality of “Mud,” first-time feature director Jordan Vogt-Roberts grossly overestimates the likability of central character Joe Toy (Nick Robinson), a selfish, unnecessarily cruel jerk.
Like “Mud,” the crisis point of “The Kings of Summer” involves a life-threatening, poisonous snakebite designed in part to reveal Joe’s mettle and signify his transition from callow childishness to maturity, but the misshapen sequence – ominously and obviously alluded to earlier in the movie – unfolds much like the convenient and pat summary of a lesson-learned television episode. The rest of the action alternates between scenes of teenage boy views of domestic drudgery and the sweet escape of hatching a plan, however unlikely, to live off the land. Joe enlists best friend Patrick (Gabriel Basso) and tagalong weirdo Biaggio (Moises Arias), an ambiguous misfit who speaks almost entirely in non sequiturs, to join him in his plan to build a house hidden in the nearby woods.
Cobbled from construction site leftovers and other pilfered scraps, the cabin miraculously comes together almost overnight, courtesy of a time-compressing montage. The result, a marvelous ramshackle fort adorned with a pickup topper-roofed second story loft, a swimming pool slide connecting the upper and lower floors, and an air hockey table (no idea how that particular item was dragged through the forest) is a prime example of the sort of “perfect imperfect” engineering that only exists in the universe of movies. As the representation of a half-real, half-dreamed arcadia, the abode offers the boys respite, refuge, and most importantly, freedom from overbearing parents.
Vogt-Roberts, working from a script by Chris Galletta, struggles to calibrate the movie’s tonal balance, grinding gears from the droll, deadpan sarcasm of Nick Offerman’s grieving dad Frank Toy – easily the most entertaining aspect of the film – to the caricature of nightmarish parenthood provided by Megan Mullally and Marc Evan Jackson (who banter like cartoon stereotypes from a Saturday Night Live sketch).
Alongside the mash-up of broad comedy and straight-faced drama, the least convincing dimension of “The Kings of Summer” is derived from the sizable gaps in logic following the disappearance of the teens. Even though the police are involved and the story makes the local news, Frank remains as calm as Patrick’s folks are alarmist. The stakes are apparently so low that at one point Frank goes fishing with Patrick’s father, showing a bizarre lack of concern during the ongoing search for their boys. Weirder still, when Patrick returns, a newscast relates Patrick’s claim not to have seen his best friend, and there is no indication that the authorities or Frank press for information from the last person to see Joe. Of course, we are not supposed to scrutinize any of this, but the movie’s relaxed pace gives us little else to do.