"The Kings of Summer" (2013) Review
The coming of age film is a tricky genre to nail. It's one of the most universal sub-genres in existence, bolstered by the fact that it can cross generations in either direction. The timeframes can be wildly different, but a 20-something like myself can find a lot in Federico Fellini's Amarcord even though it's set nearly sixty years before I was even born. On the flip-side, I'm sure that people significantly older than me can find something to identify with in modern coming of age films that have come out in the last ten or fifteen years, even if they focus on technology outside of their experience or completely different cultural norms.
Maybe the most universal coming of age story is the youth who proves themselves by surviving in nature. Sometimes these stories are mythological rites of passage, sometimes they're stories of becoming a survivalist.
And sometimes, they're stylish as hell comedies backed up by great casts and a genuinely clever and subversive screenplay.
It's not a terribly subtle segue, but The Kings of Summer is a pretty deceptive film. The entire first half feels like a fun indie comedy with quirky hooks bolstered by sun-drenched cinematography, and it definitely is one of those. But The Kings of Summer is playing another game entirely that isn't immediately clear until the second half begins to kick in. This isn't a drastic shift in tone either, but something the film has been building towards its entire duration and damn near perfectly sticks the landing.
The plot is about Joe (Nick Robinson), a high school kid whose relationship with his father Frank (Nick Offerman) has fallen apart well before the movie began. His mother died years earlier, and Frank and Joe are failing to connect. On top of that, Joe is trying (and failing) to impress Kelly (Erin Moriarty), who he has a desperate crush on. Meanwhile, Joe's best friend Patrick (Gabriel Basso) has a cast on his foot and is slowly being irritated into madness by his mother Mrs. Keenan (Megan Mullally) and his father Mr. Keenan (Marc Evan Jackson). With summer starting, Joe and Patrick sharing mutual problems, and the encouragement of local weirdo Biaggio (Moises Arias), the trio create a shelter in the woods out of neighborhood scraps and run away to live there.
It's worth emphasizing that The Kings of Summer is truly hilarious and that the comic timing of the cast is impeccable. Nick Offerman playing an asshole dad is an instant recipe for success, but seeing his cold facade crumble under the stress of his son running away is genuinely one of Offerman's best dramatic turns. This was also one of Nick Robinson's early films and he's earned his keep in plenty of films since, but he's fantastic here. He's damn funny too, but just like Offerman, he kills it in the dramatic scenes too. Gabriel Basso doesn't get enough credit for being great in this as well, but all of the kids are almost overshadowed by Moises Arias' commitment to being completely out of his mind as Biaggio. In the hands of a lesser performer, Biaggio could have easily been a quirky weirdo that felt annoying, but in Arias' hands, he's hilarious and terrifying all at once.
The Kings of Summer is visually stunning at nearly every turn. This was director Jordan Vogt-Roberts feature film debut, mostly directing internet shorts and TV episodes beforehand. His transition into feature film is effortless, bringing tons of style and personality to the proceedings. There's a reason they handed Kong: Skull Island to him (incidentally, I will write a review of that someday, but it was my 15th favorite film of 2017 that I saw last year, and for the love of God let him direct a Metal Gear Solid film).
While some of the slow motion shots in The Kings of Summer feel a little out of place, that's the only area visually where I can find any fault with this film. Regardless of how well they work, cinematographer Ross Riege captures it all effortlessly. There's one particular shot in this film where Joe wakes up in the shelter for their first day in the woods that's just... Great. You have to see it for yourself.
Above all though, the third act of this movie is jaw-dropping. It's not a visually spectacular blowout, but a dramatic descent that feels well earned and goes in a surprising direction. For a film where three boys declare that they will become men in the woods, it's nice to see that The Kings of Summer's screenplay is smart enough to subvert what that even means. The film's story tries to deliberately redefine the terms of being a man and that maybe, just maybe, being a communicative friend is what we all should be, and that friendship is the most important thing to tether us to the world and everyone around us. I know that all sounds like summary text out of an episode of the Care Bears, but trust me, The Kings of Summer has a few clever subversions up its sleeve and spoiling them would be a huge disservice to anyone reading this who hasn't seen it.
The Kings of Summer is one of my personal favorite coming of age films that deftly combines comedy and well-earned drama into a slick package. It's a film that feels brisk and fun even as it engages with more serious ideas about friendship and what it means to make a connection to the people around us.
And seriously, let Jordan Vogt-Roberts direct a Metal Gear Solid movie.