Coming-of-age tales tend to lean toward overly sentimental. Or go the complete opposite and be preachy.
But “The Kings of Summer” is neither of those. It’s a very funny, refreshing, quirky treat. The film won accolades at the Sundance Film Festival and had a limited theatrical release in May. It never made it to Wichita, but comes out on DVD and Blu-Ray on Tuesday. The film is rated R for language and some teen drinking.
It’s kind of like “Stand By Me” meets “Tom Sawyer” meets “The Lord of the Flies,” if it were directed by Wes Anderson (it’s actually Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ feature directorial debut).
The film follows Joe (Nick Robinson), a 15-year-old living with his grouchy father (character actor Nick Offerman, who you’ll recognize but not know where from). It’s just the two of them (mom died several years ago), and they don’t exactly get along.
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After a particularly stressful game of Monopoly that Joe is forced to play, Joe gets angry at his father and sneaks out of the house to attend a school party.
There, he sees Kelly (Erin Moriarty), who he clearly has a crush on, but she already has a boyfriend. Still, though, there’s a unique connection there.
The party gets disbanded when an angry neighbor starts firing gun shots. Everyone scatters. Joe heads home through the woods with Biaggio (Moises Arias), a strange kid who seems to be on his own planet.
On their journey home, they discover a secluded spot that Joe loves.
Meanwhile, we’re introduced to Joe’s best friend, Patrick (Gabriel Basso), who clearly does not “get” his parents (Megan Mullally and Marc Evan Jackson) at all. He’s actually embarassed of them. But he puts up with them because they don’t intentionally mean any harm.
The next day, Joe takes Patrick to the clearing in the woods, along with Biaggio, and explains his plan to Patrick: This is where they are going to live. They will build a house out of found material.
They’ll be away from their overbearing parents, calling their own shots. Because that’s what men do. And they’re tired of being treated like kids. Aren’t they?
Patrick scoffs at the idea. But Joe is determined, slowly building up a stash of canned goods, tools and equipment to build their house.
One push too far from his parents, and Joe agrees to do it. They go to the woods and build a sort of elaborate tree house (the likes of which they couldn’t really build).
From there, the boys settle comfortably into their new world, but grapple with how to fend for themselves.
Later, complications set in. The boys’ parents become worried and police officials step in.
And further complicating things is that Joe invites Kelly to their “man cabin,” which pushes things in a new direction and damages everyone’s blissful dynamic.
The film smartly touches on themes of growing up, such as the heartbreak of first love, broken friendships and ultimately, loyalty.
It wouldn’t be nearly as enjoyable were it not for its great leads, particularly Arias as Biaggio — he steals everyone scene he’s in and actually becomes the surprising conscience of the story.
The script by Chris Galletta crackles with humor (he’s a contributing writer to “The Late Show with David Letterman,” and it shows). Director Vogt-Roberts (who has done work for Comedy Central, which also shows) smartly keeps his visuals clean and the tone playful. He definitely is devloping his own style here, but it never becomes self-aware (unlike Anderson’s work).
“The Kings of Summer” becomes nostalgic, only because it makes us remember all the “firsts” in our lives. And how that was all so long ago.
But it also reminds us that, just maybe, we’re all still growing up yet.