You’ll be hard pressed to find a film this year—maybe ever—that captures both the burning desire and the abject terror at the prospect of growing up as “The Kings of Summer.” Certainly a generic title, it’s better than “Toy’s House,” the name on the tag the movie wore to the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. Don’t be swayed by the moniker, however, this is a fantastic, bittersweet coming of age movie that manages to be wildly funny, deathly serious, and, most of all, engaging, all at the same time.
The characters teeter on the cusp, at that point where childhood gives way to adulthood, and are unsure of how to proceed. A trio of high school friends—Joe Toy (Nick Robinson), Patrick Keenan (Gabriel Basso), and Biaggio (Moises Arias)—sick of the oppression of their parents, desperate to breathe free air and be on their own, set out to build a house in the woods and live off the land. If growing up means being anything like their folks—old, lonely, cynical, dead inside—they’d rather live in a ramshackle shanty they piece together in an isolated clearing than have anything to do with that life.
This is a story of young adventure, of rebellion and yearning, and of waving a big old middle finger at expectation and tradition. The depiction of their small town in “The Kings of Summer” is spot on. Set in Ohio, it may as well be anywhere. This is a place that breeds boredom and stagnation, where there’s nothing better to do than drink in a field to numb the pain of knowing that you’re going to be an adult soon, and knowing how much that sucks. It’s the kind of place that sucks extra hard if you happen to be a little weird; there’s nowhere to hide.
Joe is the charismatic dreamer with a bitter, disparaging father (Nick Offerman); Patrick the reluctant best friend who can’t bear to hear his parents (Megan Mullaly and Mark Evan Jackson) talk about him as if he isn’t in the room; and Biaggio “just didn’t want to do nothing.” The home they create is precisely that, a home. Cobbled together out of bits of purloined scrap wood, an abandoned canopy from a pickup, and a port-a-john door, this is an oasis, the ultimate young-boy-tree-house-dream-fort.
The set up in “The Kings of Summer” captures the sense of magic and wonder of a time in life where every last action is all or nothing. Best or worst, love or hate, it’s either the most important or least important thing you’ve ever experienced, and you wouldn’t have it any other way. Remember wandering into the woods and feeling so remote, so cut off, like you were the last person on Earth, like no one could ever find you in a million years, even though you were twenty paces and two lanes of asphalt away from a Boston Market? That’s the sensation you get from watching the film, and that’s what makes it so good.
When Patrick finds a discarded snakeskin it introduces a sense of foreboding into the story, a sense of impending doom. You know that this joyous euphoria won’t, and can’t, last forever. This is the other side of the coin: the sting of your first heartbreak, of dissolving friendships, of watching what you built crumble and fall apart around you, and the harsh realization that you can’t put it back up alone. No matter what you do, no matter how hard you struggle against it, you’re going to get older.
The three young lead actors are wonderful. Robinson brings such an infectious, witty passion to Joe that you’re ready to follow him into the woods. He has a great chemistry with Basso, and there’s an earnest stripe to their relationship that’s very genuine. One moment they’re all smiles and good-natured roughhousing, and the next they’re wounding each other as deeply as they possibly can. And then there’s Arias, who is just bananas. Alternating between spastic, creepy, and deadpan hilarious. He’s the weirdest of the weird kids, a fact driven home watching him machete his way through the forest in slow motion, or camouflage himself against a tree trunk.
The biggest laughs in “The Kings of Summer” come from Arias and Offerman, full of dead-inside grump as he is. Biaggio is fun, but he’s more of a random collection of strangeness than an actual character. You know little about him other than he’s ultra awkward, and all you know about his family comes from one brief interaction with his father in the middle of his morning shave.
Occasionally beautiful, alternately warm and bittersweet, “The Kings of Summer” is the first feature from both director Jordan Vogt-Roberts and writer Chris Galleta, and it nails that moment where innocence and reality collide. It may not be the deepest story of self-discovery, it may not resonate and linger with everyone—it’s easy to imagine men connecting more with this story than women—and the payoff that growing up doesn’t automatically mean the death of joy, may be a little easy. Still, you should see this. I haven’t laughed harder at any movie this year, or walked out of the theater feeling quite as good.