Oh-so-familiar themes of teenage rebellion, coming-of-age, and the longing for independence are given a fresh, funny, enjoyably bizarre treatment in the acclaimed Sundance breakout The Kings of Summer. The feature-length debut film from director Jordan Vogt-Roberts and writer Chris Galletta, it tells the story of Joe (Nick Robinson) and Patrick (Gabriel Basso), two best friends growing up in the suburbs of Cleveland. The school year has ended, and both boys are dreading the prospect of spending the summer with their parents. Tensions have been running high between Joe and his gruff but well-intentioned father, Frank (Nick Offerman), since Joe’s mother passed away and his sister (Alison Brie) went off to school (presumably Greendale Community College). As for Patrick’s parents (Megan Mullally and Marc Evan Jackson), they merely suffocate him with their benign, cloying goofiness.
Fueled by headiness and hormones, Joe and Patrick decide to gamble on the experiment of their lives: what if they ran away together to live in the wilderness? They wouldn’t tell anyone they were leaving, just disappear from the grid entirely. Once they decide to make this dream a reality, the boys set about devising a survival plan. Food? Hunt and gather. Shelter? They’ll build themselves a house in their wooded oasis. They are assisted in this by Biaggio (Moises Arias), an inexplicable oddball who randomly shows up as they’re scouting woodland locations and somehow becomes their third. Amazingly, their plan comes together: the three boys gradually build a (surprisingly cool) cabin in the woods, then disappear without a word. And while they enjoy their wild-man utopia for a period, conflicts gradually and inevitably arise—both logistical (Patrick finds an amusing go-to cheat for their food plan), and personal, in the form of Kelly (Erin Moriarty), a beautiful girl who comes between Joe and Patrick. And, of course, their parents are hot on their trails.
Every year grown-ups find
themselves ourselves (ugh) asking how many more movies about the teenage experience they we can endure. But then movies like The Kings of Summer come along, and we’re reminded anew of the limitless appeal of a well-told, intriguingly crafted story about that eternally formative journey into adulthood. Instantly entertaining, appealingly eccentric, and very funny, this is a film that deserves to join classics like Stand By Me in the pantheon of great films about young men coming of age in the wild. In addition to Vogt-Roberts’ confidently visionary direction and Galletta’s rock-solid script, The Kings of Summer benefits from a remarkable cast. Offerman scores his finest big-screen performance yet as Frank, who’s just enough like Ron Swanson to guarantee laughs for Parks & Rec fans while being distinct enough to stand on his own. Offerman’s real-life wife Mullally, along with Jackson, are endearingly silly as Patrick’s parents. The delectable Brie is always a welcome presence.
As for its young cast, they are uniformly excellent. Nick Robinson, a pouty pretty-boy in the tradition of James Dean who was previously best-known for his featured role on Melissa & Joey, is perfectly prickly in his fully-realized turn as Joe. Gabriel Basso, arguably the most accomplished of the young cast (The Big C, Super 8), is winningly sweet and unaffected as Patrick. Moises Arias, surprisingly the only actor present who’s served any serious Disney time (Hannah Montana, Wizards of Waverly Place), is the audience-pleasing sure thing in his comic relief role as Biaggio. And despite the completely out-of-place nature of this exaggeratedly strange character, Arias triumphs with his always surprising acting choices and uncanny ability to telegraph such a specific role while saying very little.
I had a 3-on-1 sit-down with Robinson, Basso, and Arias while the boys were attending the San Francisco International Film Festival for a fun, far-ranging conversation about the difficulties of growing facial hair, which board games are most likely to inspire screaming fights among their families, and what to do when you see Offerman and Mullally’s trailer a-rockin’. Listen to it in its entirety below.
The Kings of Summer opens in San Francisco today.