The fine young summer romance — that time in the short months between spring and fall when love gets idealized and love gets messy — is an idea so entrenched in pop culture and particularly in film that we tend to forget to ask if such an impossible thing actually exists? It never existed for me, but then again I didn’t go to summer camp or work at a theme park — and I certainly didn’t flee the parental tyranny of home for the lawless yonder of the woods as three teenage friends do in “The Kings of Summer.”
Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts from a screenplay by Chris Galletta, “Kings” is a sweet yet fleeting trifle of a film. It puts this specific brand of love on the highest of cinematic pedestals, featuring plenty of montage, scorching lens flares and young people mulling over absolutely nothing amid the gauzy wisp of wheat fields. With protagonists so devoid of the irony that makes angsty teens such a pleasure to watch, it is the film’s earnestness that damns it in the end. But along the way, “Kings” proves occasionally funny and never less than entertaining, as escapist as the dreamy notions of bygone youth it portrays.
Joe (Nick Robinson) is a gawkish, gangly mess of a teenager with a few relatable problems: his father Frank (Nick Offerman of “Parks and Recreation”) is a difficult dad to deal with, and the object of his affection, Kelly (Erin Moriarty), is impossibly out of reach from Joe’s lowly position in the unforgiving caste system that is high school. And so he rebels. He convinces best friend Patrick (Gabriel Basso) and class weirdo Biaggio (Moises Arias, the McLovin surrogate in this take on the coming-of-age buddy comedy) for a summer of anarchy and living off the land.
Together they build an admirably inhabitable cabin from the scraps of a model home in the woods, but the trouble is that Joe and the gang didn’t fly far from the coop. Their families start looking for them — though curiously, they hardly panic — and Joe and Biaggio start breaking the rules of forest-dwelling by hauling food from Boston Market back to their pastoral pied-à-terre. When Kelly shows up at their hideaway, effectively throwing the wrench of jealousy into the mix, Joe tries to pass the chickens off as wild game to impress her.
With witty comic turns by Offerman (casually unflappable as always), a scene-stealing Megan Mullally as Patrick’s frantic, racist helicopter mom (“The Irish are the blacks of Europe, period!”) and the lovely Alison Brie as Joe’s big sister, the film pleasantly breezes by as it contrasts the suburbs with the kid kings’ makeshift subterranean world. Through well-meaning, albeit rosy-colored lenses, the screenplay by Chris Galletta effusively recreates that tenuous period between the school years, when the sun of innocence starts to set. But the script gets caught in some clunky narrative machinery as it tries to wrap up a pretty, sappy package.
Jordan Vogt-Roberts is an unexpectedly cinematic director and stylist, shooting on digital stock with a grainy, celluloid-like quality that almost makes you question the medium. But the film can’t quite overcome the murky plague of dark natural lighting. Visual splendor abounds in the film’s outdoor sequences, with lyrical editing and pictorial wide shots of nature that capture the boundless, romantic freedom of youth, where the kids carouse out from under the stuffy noses of their alienating parents. For better and for worse, “Kings” — always on the verge of breaking into montage — resembles one of those ethereal “Go Forth” commercials for Levi’s that aim for sublimity but end up looking like the poor man’s Terrence Malick.
Few films in the Teenage Summer of Love category have succeeded in grounding the stock tropes of this genre in any kind of reality (the winsome, gentle “Adventureland” pulled this off). Though no exception, “The Kings of Summer” valiantly attempts to depict awkward teenage times with at least a decent amount of respect for what it’s like to be 16 years old. But this movie’s true success happens offscreen when it awakens our own nostalgia for the days of being young and wily and pimply. And in such jaded times, perhaps we ought to give more warm a welcome to a film like this, however too good its intentions may be.