The Kings of Summer (2013)
Working part-time at a movie theater in the summers, I come across, let’s say, an interesting selection of customers with… interesting opinions. One middle-aged woman openly opined, while looking at the poster for the coming-of-age comedy The Kings of Summer, that she’s had enough with movies told from a teenage male perspective. While this same woman had very specific and narrow demands for an acceptable movie, she got me thinking. Why do we get so many coming-of-age movies from a male perspective? Let’s forget the easy answer that Hollywood has a lot more male filmmakers than female. There’s always that sense of romance with coming-of-age films, a nostalgic look back at a supposedly simpler time that now seems better appreciated. Maybe men are just more prone to romanticizing the past while women look forward to the future. Or maybe there are really just more men calling the shots about films get made. Whatever the reason, the woman didn’t go see The Kings of Summer, and judging by her attitude, I don’t think she missed out.
Joe (Nick Robinson) has just finished his freshman year in high school. He has a long summer ahead butting heads with his no-nonsense father (Nick Offerman). Then Joe gets the brilliant idea. He and his pal Patrick (Gabriel Basso), who is also sick of his annoying parents, will build their own home in the woods, a sanctuary where they can set the rules. Joe and Patrick pack up their belongings, find a quiet spot in the woods, and build that dream home. Biaggio (Moises Arias), a weird and gangly kid, takes an interest in the youthful declaration of independence and joins in. The guys invite girls over, explore the wilderness, grow patchy wisps of facial hair, and live out their fantasies of roughing it like real men. Of course it helps when a Boston Market is just down the road.
From start to finish, The Kings of Summer kept me laughing. I did not expect the comedy to be as consistent and thorough as it was, but writer Chris Galletta has a sure handed way of making the comedy derive from the situations and characters. Even with some outsized elements, notably Biaggio and the fact that the boys home-away-from-home is way too advanced for a kid who blundered through shop class, the humor never feels forced. That is an accomplishment, though the script also overly relies on Biaggio to say outlandish or weird lines. I especially enjoyed his one-scene pep talk with his father late in the movie. That confidant sense of humor goes a long way to relax an audience, allowing us to attune to the mellow waves of the film. It’s fun to watch the guys try to forage a life out in the woods, slowly learning how hard this whole survivalist lifestyle may actually be. The adults are viewed as blithe buffoons or hardasses, though they don’t come across as caricatures. Credit the attention paid to Offerman’s (TV’s Parks and Recreation) character as Joe’s father and credit Offerman’s uncanny ability to make gruff parenting endearing. This is an easy film to like, to go along with the flow, and to enjoy. It never really falters in entertainment and routinely has another joke at the ready to make you smile. It’s a sweet movie that does enough to keep you charmed.
While pleasant, I had to stop and reflect that there was absolutely very little to these characters. The boys all kind of blend together in their youthful romanticism of freedom and rebellion of lame parents, but you’d be hard-pressed to describe them beyond core physical descriptions. The moments that do supply character development are mostly broadly comedic or somewhat generic in their coming-of-age tropes, notably the broken heart administered by a guy’s crush. Example: Biaggio is essentially little more than a walking punchline machine. While quite funny and well acted, every line of his dialogue feels like a punchline. He comes from nowhere. At one point, Joe advises Biaggio that a girl may be interested in him, but Biaggio demurs and says that won’t work out. All right, here we go. Here’s where the movie sheds some light on him. Biaggio admits to being gay. The very next line involves him confusing gay with cystic fibrosis. It’s a funny joke but it turns a moment where a character was getting added dimension and just manufactures another punchline. Again, The Kings of Summer is a very pleasant film going experience, and one that made me laugh consistently, but objectively, the impact is too limited because of the lack of proper characterization.
And I suppose this leads into a bigger question of whether this lack of substantial characterization even matters. Coming-of-age movies, like any subgenre in film, have their own expectations and conventions. We all have our different tolerance levels for narrative familiarity, and depending upon the genre, familiarity may be a necessity. Fans of coming-of-age films want to see those familiar elements. They want to see the bonds of friendship, the neglectful parents, the first crushes that lead to first heartaches. It’s just like fans of romantic comedies finding comfort in the two leads hating one another until, inevitably, they love each other, or the public sing-alongs. I think many coming-of-age films at some level tend to be somewhat broad or generic to make them more relatable. Perhaps I’m just being too generous to formulaic pictures. If you’re a fan of coming-of-age movies then you’ll probably be quite forgiving of the shortcomings in The Kings of Summer. Me, I prefer Jeff Nichols’ Mud and its more textured, empathetic look at adolescence in a working poor Missouri riverbed community.
Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (TV’s Mash Up, Funny or Die Presents…) makes the film look beautiful. The romanticism of the youth running away to live in nature is improved with some spectacular looking natural settings and compositions. The film was primarily filmed in Cleveland and northern Ohio, and as a native Ohioan, I have to puff my chest. Vogt-Roberts is also skilled at handling his actors and balancing tone; while I criticize the over reliance on comedy at the expense of fleshing out characters, the tone is not divergent. It plays within the same cohesive wavelength throughout. If there is a breakout actor from this movie, it would have to be Arias (TV’s Hannah Montana, The Middle). The kid has a tremendous ability to tap into an oddball character, making him quirky rather than insufferable. He also has a unique look to him, and that’s got to be a plus for a working actor. Just ask Steve Buscemi.
Genial and undemanding, The Kings of Summer isn’t anything close to royalty in the coming-of-age genre but it’s consistently funny and enjoyable. The acting is good, the jokes work, and the movie’s out after 90 minutes. It’s a nice summer diversion but doesn’t contain the resonance to be considered more than that. The weak characterization and broad humor, while opening its wide appeal, also makes the film less substantial. It’s sweet and funny but little to distinguish it from other sweet and funny coming-of-age entries. If you’re a fan of the genre or looking for a mellow and pleasant evening at the movies, think of The Kings of Summer. Just don’t think it’s going to be anything more.
Nate’s Grade: B