After the premiere screening at Sundance of his wonderful debut feature “Kings Of Summer,” director Jordan Vogt-Roberts – responsible for the short “Successful Alcoholics” and a veteran of “Funny Or Die Presents…” – told the audience his influences for his first feature included early Amblin films like “The Goonies” with “elements of [Terrence] Malick,” and most surprisingly, “Bad Boys II.” The filmmaker had to clarify that he was not, in fact, joking about Michael Bay’s destruction opus, and his Twitter bio proves it (“Really into Michael Bay”). And so, from these wonderfully disparate influences we have “Kings Of Summer,” a crockpot of comedy and coming-of-age film without a trace of irony.
The film opens with three boys in the woods, two of them rhythmically drumming on a giant pipe while the third dances like a maniac on top of it. Cut to: one month earlier and we’re introduced to two of these boys, Joe Toy (Nick Robinson) and his best friend Patrick Keenan (Gabriel Basso). Joe and Patrick are about 14 years old, an age where fantasy and video games are still important, but girls are starting to come into the picture, and their protective parents are becoming increasingly unbearable to them. Since Joe’s mom passed away, his relationship with his hardass father Frank (Nick Offerman), who wields sarcasm like a weapon, has only become more strained.
Patrick likewise finds his parents (Megan Mullally and Marc Evan Jackson) to be completely overbearing because they don’t take him seriously. At school, Joe’s crush Kelly (Erin Moriarty) invites him to a party, but his father informs him that he’s got to stay home for family game night. His older sister Heather (Alison Brie), who now lives with her boyfriend (Eugene Cordero), and his father’s new girlfriend are both coming over, and eventually Joe’s frustrations boil over during a game of Monopoly. After game night wraps up with police sirens, Joe sneaks out to the party, and after it’s busted up by a neighbor complaining of noise, he and Patrick eventually find themselves lost at a clearing in the woods. Joe decides then and there that they should build a house there and live as adults, free from the tyranny of their annoying parents.
As the two best friends come to this agreement they find they’ve been followed by a strange kid named Biaggio (Moises Arias) who becomes the de facto third member of their group. In the first of several wonderful montages, the boys construct their new home and move in. They consider sending ransom notes to their worried parents, but their days mostly consist of goofing off, slicing things in half, playing in the river and foraging for food (which includes occasional trips to Boston Market just across the highway). They’re determined to become men out here, at one with nature, free from their parents rule. After a few weeks pass they realize the only thing missing is a woman’s company, and so Joe extends an invitation to Kelly to join them for dinner at the house. But this causes a ripple effect that causes Joe and Patrick’s friendship to fray.
The lead boys are both excellent, and they’re backed by an ensemble of terrific comedians and actors — supporting performers include Mary Lynn Rajskub, Hannibal Burress, Kumail Nanjiani and more — but if pressed to single out just one performance it would have to be Moises Arias as the mysterious Biagio. His character is completely unpredictable, uttering lines like, “Perhaps we can disillusion him, a bear who doesn’t believe in anything will be easier to bring down,” and a steady stream of non-sequiturs (“I met a dog the other day that taught me how to die”).
While the premise of the film is outlandish, the feelings are all real. Struggling to communicate with your parents, deal with girls, assert your independence… these are all very real concerns for a kid who’s 14 years old, and the film treats them seriously. Director Vogt-Roberts and screenwriter Chris Galletta are in perfect unison on this film, harmonizing to create what feels like a fresh comic voice. Often indies fall into a pattern of deadpan post-Wes Anderson quirk, but this film firmly carves out its own identity. The duo have created a world that’s fantastic but grounded in authentic emotions (aided in no small part by gorgeous cinematography by Ross Riege). Vogt-Roberts said he wanted to make a comedy that was beautiful and dark and also funny; we’d say he succeeded wildly. [B+]