When summertime escapist fare comes to mind, one usually thinks of supermen, aliens and giant robots — distinctly fantastical ventures by which we as an audience are ostensibly transported for a while. This summer, though, has already seen a serendipitous alignment of coming-of-age pictures: April’s “Mud,” May’s “The Kings of Summer” and July’s “The Way, Way Back.”
In Jeff Nichols’ “Mud,” two young men (Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland) try to help a fugitive (Matthew McConaughey) reunite with his girlfriend (Reese Witherspoon) and escape from his pursuers. The protagonists of Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ “Kings” aren’t so ambitious; these three (Nick Robinson, Gabriel Basso, Moises Arias) just want a makeshift retreat to call their own. As for Nat Faxon and Jim Rash’s “Back,” poor Duncan (Liam James) might as well be on his lonesome, stranded amid fun-loving parents until he seeks refuge at a nearby water park.
Having all been Sundance selections this year, oddly enough, each film sees teenage boys fleeing their parents and, by extension, adult responsibility in favor of much-craved adventure and long-needed independence. Each embraces its own particular era of nostalgia. “Back” echoes the carefree charms of many an ’80s one-crazy-summer movie; “Kings” offers something closer to a hazy ’70s-worthy portrait of free-wheeling wilderness exploration; while “Mud”‘s sense of storytelling has a classicism worthy of Mark Twain’s Mississippi-set tomes.
However, all look back with equal fondness and trepidation on a certain age in a young man’s life. Perhaps that’s not fair to the ladies, all cast in these films as probable love interests and potential killjoys. Then again, how much better off are the gents, given that they are uniformly neurotic and initially passive? That’s the beauty of any good coming-of-age story: short-sighted dreams (finding a boat in a tree, building a house in the woods, landing your first job and first kiss) leading to hard-earned truths about love, justice, family, and the value of a well-placed Boston Market.
So why now? It’s always tempting to assign modern concerns — that audiences might crave simplicity and self-reliance in the wake of war and recession — and maybe that’s not entirely off-point. I’d rather think that the box office success of “Mud” and “Kings” to date (and the likely embrace of “Back” by summertime crowds) stem from a desire for character-driven stories amid so much blockbuster fanfare; for the funny, shaggy charms of getting to simply hang out as our leads hope to. It’s not about saving the world, but savoring it for a change, and while the films are not necessarily equal accomplishments, they each succeed at re-capturing a bygone blend of pressure and possibility in a refreshingly low-fi way.
Although all of these getaways are ultimately short-lived, the characters are nonetheless changed by their experiences, and just as we too must leave the theater after two hours and return to the real world, we might hope that those escapes will suffice enough to serve as our own.