Parents have the capacity to be very annoying. When you’re a only freshman in high school, you don’t exactly have the luxury of avoiding them completely by just ignoring their phone calls. They are on you. All the time. In The Kings of Summer, fifteen-year-old Joe Toy (Nick Robinson) has officially had it with his overbearing father (Nick Offerman) and decides to move out on his own, albeit with friends Patrick and Biaggio (Gabriel Basso and Moises Arias) into the wilderness, where he can finally be his own man. Joe quickly learns that becoming one with nature – as well as living outside of the parental safety net – isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
The film’s director, Jordan Vogt-Roberts, making his feature film debut here, shows incredible promise. He creates a world that is very relatable and true in terms of how it deals with adolescent angst, but at the same time, there is an element of the fantastic peppered throughout, making the film consistently refreshing and entertaining. Though the film is somewhat mired by some predictable plot points, it wins on the whole with Vogt-Robert’s creative voice and the completely engaging performances from the three young leads.
It’s the beginning of summer, at the tail end of Joe’s freshman year of high school. Joe’s father is a widower and takes his frustrations out on his son, mainly, it seems, through cutthroat games of monopoly and stringently mandated yard work. Sneaking home one evening from an interrupted outdoor kegger that his crush Kelly (Erin Moriarty) invited him to, Joe discovers a far off part of the woods where he has never been before. The seed is then planted to build a house in this area and live off the land. He recruits his best friend Patrick to join him, since Patrick’s parents (Megan Mullally and Mark Evan Jackson) are so eerily cheery and overbearing that they are literally giving their son hives (or so he thinks). Asexual pygmy Biaggio joins them even though Joe doesn’t know how to tell him not to.
As their parents search for them with the help of two fairly incompetent cops (the hilarious Mary Lynn Rajskub and Thomas Middleditch), the boys perform the very manly practices of tribal dancing on drainage pipes, peeing in the river, and hunting for food – though more often than not, they end up buying chickens at a nearby Boston Market. The friendship between Joe and Patrick becomes strained when Kelly comes between them, threatening their idealistic existence amidst the trees.
Perhaps the most admirable aspect of the film is the manner in which Vogt-Roberts treats the adolescent angst that the boys feel. While sometimes played for laughs, their feelings are never treated as silly or arbitrary, but rather as justified and true. Their respective parents are hardly monsters – they are genuinely concerned for their children’s well-being and don’t sit idly by as they engage in their various misadventures. Vogt-Roberts makes the boys’ feelings completely understandable as he adeptly projects their individual points of view. Fifteen is also that age that is right on the cusp of childhood and adulthood – sexual interest exists, but at the same time, the boys delight in attaching a playground slide to their home and peeing en masse. And this film gets that cusp just right.
The exuberance of their adolescent fancies is reflected through the film’s frequent touches of whimsy and moments of the fantastic. For instance, it’s hard to believe that they can just take complete ownership of this unclaimed area of the woods and also that they can erect a somewhat stable structure in a seemingly short amount of time. While the police are pretty useless, it’s also hard to believe that they aren’t found right away. It’s a magical section of the world that exists only for them, obscuring them from the harsh realities of adolescence and dealing with adults. Here, they are the Kings of Summer.
Robinson successfully drives the film as Joe, both the mischievous ringleader in his group of friends but also carrying the deep wounds from his mother’s death. Arias portrays a level of weird not usually seen onscreen as Biaggio, but as weird as it gets, it works here. He acts more animal than human, with a constant fixed stare, popping up silently where he is least expected. The combined comedic talents of the adult cast is also astounding, with stellar supporting turns from Offerman, Mullally, and Rajskub, as well as Alison Brie as Joe’s older sister and even a brief cameo from Tony Hale.
While the script from Chris Galletta (also making his feature film debut) is very funny and effective on the whole, it is mired somewhat by some overly predictable plot points in terms of the “love interest” and Joe’s relationship arc with his father. However, as a whole, the film really works and hopefully will make a name for the many nascent talents that it exhibits.
The Upside: Jordan Vogt-Roberts shows great promise as a feature film director and the performances of the young leads were pretty stellar.
The Downside: The script did feature a few predictable moments.
On the Side: The festival title of the film was the overly punny Toy’s House.