Judge Michael Nazarewycz wants central air in his tree house.
Why live when you can rule.
When I was a kid, we had a small cabin in the Poconos we used on weekends and holidays—just a place to get away from suburbia for a while. One summer, in my closet floor, I wanted to saw a hole that would lead to a series of Hogan's Heroes-like tunnels to take me to a hollowed-out tree stump that would rest at the foot of a ladder that would get me into a tree house. It didn't happen. It wasn't the implausibility of the plan per se, rather it was the fact that I am no good with hand tools, and the notion of all that digging was tiring just to think about. The lads at the heart of The Kings of Summer are looking to get away, too, and their plan is much more stable—and permanent—than mine.
Facts of the Case
Joe Toy (Nick Robinson, Melissa and Joey) has had it with his father, Frank (Nick Offerman, Parks and Recreation). The widowed patriarch of the Toy family is sarcastic, insensitive, and so intent on flaunting his superiority over his son that he openly sets up Joe for failure while playing Monopoly on family game night. The high schooler, having just survived his freshman year, has a plan: he's going to build a house in a clearing he discovered in a nearby forest.
Joe recruits his best friend, Patrick (Gabriel Basso, Super 8), to join him on this journey. Patrick's home life isn't much better. His parents (Megan Mullally, Will and Grace; Marc Evan Jackson, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen), while not as mean-spirited as Frank, are no less overbearing; in fact, their behavior is causing Patrick to break out in hives.
With classmate Biaggio (Moises Arias, The Secret World of Arrietty) joining them, the boys leave home and forge an unforgettable bond as they build their house in the woods—but can utopia last all summer, let alone forever?
Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize Nominee The Kings of Summer, written by Tyler Davidson (Take Shelter) and directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts (Funny Or Die Presents…), is a charming film that is lifted and carried by the performance of its cast.
Leading the charge is Nick Robinson as Joe. As part Blossoming Adolescent, part Angry Young Man, and part Natural Born Leader, Joe is more complex than some of the angsty cinematic teens who have come before him. Robinson plays all of the parts well and pivots among them naturally. He also has good comedic timing and delivery of his funnier lines. Basso is solid as Patrick, and he recognizes that he is the sidekick in this story. As for Arias, he has the perfect homely kid look (compared to the boyishly cute Robinson and athletic Basso) that helps lend to the heavier comic relief duties he has in the film.
The scene stealer, though, is Offerman. He plays a great bastard when serious, and an even greater bastard when he is delivering blistering one-liners. There were several laugh-out-loud moments in this film, most with Offerman delivering those lines at the expense of others. You certainly don't root for him, but you don't mind when he opens his mouth.
Helping these great performances is some stunning imagery, courtesy of cinematographer Ross Riege. On The Kings of Summer (Blu-ray)'s 1080p Anamorphic image, scenes of nature—and the boys working, playing, and living within—take on vibrant life. This is enhanced when a higher-speed film is used and the clarity of slow-motion projection is on remarkably sharp display. He also uses lens flares to considerable effect. The audio is very good, alternating from loud musical montage scenes to quiet moments of nature.
The extras are okay, although they heavily exploit the pipe drum scene. If you aren't familiar with the pipe drum scene, it's a scene in the film where the boys happen across a pipeline. Joe and Patrick use stripped tree branches as drumsticks to beat out a simple rhythm while Biaggio performs an improvised tribal dance. It's fun in the trailer and it's fun in the film, but it's also one of the four extended and missing scenes. By the time you've seen it at least these three times, you've had enough. The remainder of the missing and extended scenes are fine to view, but were wisely cut from the finished product.
Also exploited is Nick Offerman, whose one-liners are compiled in "Speaking Frankly With Frank Toy," which is represented in something styled similarly to a Saturday Night Live faux commercial. What the extras-makers fail to realize is that the context of each line is what helps make it funny, not just the line itself.
Other extras include featurettes "The Long Shot" and "Allison and Eugene," both of which focus on clips and interviews with the cast and crew. There is also an audio commentary that includes the director, writer, and three young leads at the same time. They share a lot of memories form the film, and poke a lot of fun at themselves as well.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
All of that charm, beauty, and humor, however, can't mask the film's two biggest, and most glaring, shortcomings: the script and the direction.
Despite its clever dialogue, the script is woefully thin on character development and plot. Joe aside (although I could argue that very little changes about him from the beginning of the film to the end), the characters of this film are either two-dimensional (like Joe's love interest, Kelly, played by Erin Moriarty), unbelievable caricatures (see Patrick's parents), or entirely unnecessary.
This last point refers to Biaggio, whose character is a literal tag-along; he was never friends with Joe or Patrick when they went off on their journey, and he offers nothing in the way of plot or character advancement. In fact, he is such an afterthought, when Joe and Patrick's parents go to the police after the boys are missing for weeks, no one reports Biaggio. You can argue that he is ignored by his parents, but that's too great a leap of faith for a script that is so otherwise flawed. Even Ally Sheedy's character in The Breakfast Club actually says she is ignored. At the least, that needs to be called out here and it isn't.
The plot is no better. Unhappy teens run away and build a house. Their out-of-touch-parents worry. There is resolution. The end. Oh, don't forget to throw in a total I-Call-BS twist in the third act involving Kelly, as well as manufactured peril near the film's conclusion. It's a 30-minute story stretched 95 minutes thin.
Speaking of stretching, director Vogt-Roberts is enamored with overlong, overused montages that are clearly there as time filler. I counted five montages in this film, which is, at best, three too many. This average of one montage every 19 minutes exposes Vogt-Roberts' weakness as a director: he can't construct something long-form. In fact, on one of the extras, his title card says he is "known for ground-breaking shorts." It shows. The film—including the montages—is a collection of shorter films strung together with a common theme. It would also explain his attraction to the light script.
The Kings of Summer is like a fireworks display. It's fun and pretty to look at, you get caught up in the occasional Wow! moment, and you're glad you saw it. Like that fireworks display, though, once the movie is done, you say to yourself, "Well, that's over. Now what?"
Who doesn't like fireworks? Not guilty.
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