THE KINGS OF SUMMER Movie Review: A Great Growing Up Movie

This Sundance hit is a funny, sweet successor to coming of age films like STAND BY ME. 

Heartache, anger and a burning desire to prove yourself are not the province of the young, but there’s something particularly pure and powerful in how we feel those things when we’re 15 or 16 years old. We carry memories of that with us forever, which is why movies about this age still carry such a punch when we’re older. There’s something vaguely irritating about watching 20somethings find their way when you’re 35 or up, and almost nobody wants to see movies about 5 year olds or 45 year olds. But 15 year olds? We still feel that shit.

The Kings of Summer feels that shit. But it doesn’t feel it some downer, bummer sepia-tinted when we were young way. It feels it in an immediate, trapped in the moment because we are young way. Writing about it a couple of weeks later it’s the emotions of the piece that stick with me, but Kings of Summer is mostly very funny, which makes the bits where it gets serious hit all that much harder.

Joe Toy (Nick Robinson, a name familiar to commenters on this site) is living in the aftermath of his mom’s death. His dad (Parks & Recs’ Nick Offerman) is trying his best to raise the boy, but his gruffness - which conceals a heart of gold, etc - only alienates his son. Joe acts out, SWAT-ing his own house and, eventually, hatching a plan to run away.

He ropes in his best friend, Patrick (Gabriel Basso), and along with a strange boy named Biaggio (Moises Arias) who just sort of shows up, he builds a house in the woods. The three boys construct a truly impressive home, with a loft sleeping area and a dining room and even a mailbox out front. And when it’s complete they leave their parents and move in. Their parents freak out looking for them, but the three boys discover themselves out in the woods. At least until girls get involved.

There’s a trailer quote saying The Kings of Summer is perfect for the YouTube generation, which is like saying Stand By Me is ideal for the Atari generation. Yes, younger viewers will love this film, but there’s nothing about The Kings of Summer that says ‘YouTube’ to me. It’s feature length, for one thing. But it’s also not silly or frenetic or shallow. In fact, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts is clearly influenced by Terence Malick of all people, and the film features gorgeous woodsy vistas and patient seas of grain.

Stand By Me, by the way, is probably the best single comparison for The Kings of Summer. They aren’t the same film by a long shot, but the way Rob Reiner’s movie perfectly juggled the naivety of youth and the pain of growing up, the way it alternates between funny and touching at any given time, is similar to what Vogt-Roberts (working from a script by Chris Galletta) is doing here. When you think back on Stand By Me your mood will dictate what scene you recall, whether it be a funny one like the pie eating contest, or whether it be River Phoenix’s breakdown. The same, I think, will be true of The Kings of Summer. It already is for me - my thoughts about it range from the crushing pain of Joe seeing the girl he loves fall for another guy to Nick Offerman’s hilarious back-and-forth with Kumail Nanjiani’s delivery driver. 

Robinson plays Joe as a complicated guy. He’s definitely wounded - you have to have some issues to call the cops to your house because your dad is being a dick at Monopoly - but he’s also surprisingly competent. The comedy in The Kings of Summer rarely comes from the boys being unprepared for the wild; in fact they take to it completely, and even when the wild fights back a little bit we see that Joe is absolutely capable of handling himself. He does, to some extent, truly test and find himself out in the woods. Robinson walks the tightrope of cocky and confused, and he’s the sort of character who is, ultimately, right, but in the wrong way.

Playing against him Gabriel Basso brings a wonderful physicality and humor to Patrick. He’s a big, athletic kid, often wearing sweats, and he has a broken foot. It seems as though that foot might be what’s keeping him where he is, that once it heals he’ll be breaking through to the next level of his development. What’s wonderful is that he ends up being the romantic one, the one who buys into the myth of outdoorsmen (he’s the only one of the group truly hunting and foraging; Joe and Biaggio hit up the local Boston Market and pretend they killed the chickens themselves) and who, eventually, falls in love. Joe’s the dreamer who ends up being practically skilled while Patrick seems to be the practical one who turns out to be sweetly softer.

And then there’s Biaggio. The story of the two best friends in the woods would be fine without Biaggio, but it wouldn’t be The Kings of Summer. Biaggio is the ultimate weird kid - he’s little and funny looking and has no social graces. He’s given to bizarre non-sequiters, but he’s also brimming with the kind of confidence only un-self aware people have. Moises Arias, who it turns out is big on the tween scene, plays Biaggio with the right mix of alienness and touching humanity. At one point he reveals to Joe that he’s gay, and he knows this because his lungs fill with fluid whenever the seasons change.

Arias carefully, subtly brings humanity to this weirdo; a flashforward sequence at the start of the film showing the boys drumming and Biaggio dancing looks bizarre and funny at first, but by the time the movie catches up to that moment you love Biaggio so much it’s simply cute. Galletta’s script gives us just enough Biaggio and his history without really overwhelming us with him.

I keep thinking about that ‘for the YouTube generation’ thing. The Kings of Summer isn’t the kind of young person movie that gets made much anymore. It’s not flooded with pop culture references - that stuff was unique and fresh when Stand By Me came out, but it’s so tedious to hear Star Wars get dropped into movie conversations just to make them sound ‘current.’ The only two real cultural references are Monopoly and Street Fighter II, and neither are overwhelming, and both serve character. Mostly these kids talk amongst themselves about themselves and what they’re doing, not about some movie they saw or comic they read or what somebody at school put on Facebook. They have cell phones, but even that bit of central modern technology isn’t central to their story - they throw the phones away as soon as they leave home. Only the soundtrack, which includes some absolutely appropriate hip hop, is the closest the film gets to really staking a claim to an era.

The kids are the center of the movie, which may be why I’m giving the adult cast shorter shrift here. Offerman does his beloved Offerman thing - he’ll have all the bacon - and it works nicely here. The contrast between this gruffly manly dad and his actually, actively manly son is striking and smart. Alison Brie shows up for a minute as Joe’s sister, and Megan Mullally and Marc Evan Jackson are very funny as Patrick’s stunningly square parents. Young Erin Moriarty has the right heartbreaker looks to play the girl who comes between Joe and Patrick, although I wish we had a little bit more of an insight into her; she gets only one scene on her own and it’s a comedy bit where she’s playing against two not that funny guys on a golf course (it’s the only funny scene that doesn’t work, making it very notable). It seems too easy for some audience members to walk out of this movie thinking she’s a bitch, which would be terribly unfair - and incorrect.

This is Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ first feature (he directed some episodes of the fairly underrated MTV gorefest Death Valley, it turns out) and he is assured and prepared. We had a generation of filmmakers coming out of commercials and music videos, but Vogt-Roberts comes from digital shorts and TV. He knows how to compose an image AND tell a story, a talent set too rare in many young filmmakers. But most importantly he’s adept at juggling the film’s tones, and while The Kings of Summer leans towards the serious near the end, he never loses sight of the comedy and the wistful qualities of being a teen.