Well, "The Kings of Summer" is an interesting one to critique. I had been looking forward to seeing this flick ever since I heard the positive buzz it garnered at this year's Sundance Film Festival, back when the movie was titled "Toy's House." And now that I have finally seen it, I'm surprised at how indifferent I am towards it. This isn't a terrible movie. No, not by a long shot. It's just an undemanding, unremarkable one.
"The Kings of Summer" is not especially funny or deep or profound or moving or infuriating. It has moments of wit. There are a few little truths revealed along the way. And I wrestled a bit with whether I agreed with the film's three main teenage boy protagonists, who become so fed up with their home life that they decide to run away from home and build a house of their own in the deep woods. But you know what? I wanted more at almost every turn! I wanted big laughs. I wanted the film to make me think and feel. I wanted to debate the actions of the characters with my friends and fellow critics afterwards.
But the only thing the film evoked in me afterwards was a need to hum the indie alt-rock tune playing over the end credits. Then, I left the screening, drove home, and waited a few days to write this Our Take. And you know what? I'm having a bit of a tough time remembering the flick! Thank God, I took extensive notes!
Nick Robinson plays Joe, a teenage boy heading into summer vacation. He sees the break as a prison sentence, because it means he'll be spending more time with Frank, his increasingly strict, overly critical, acerbic father. Both dudes are still reeling from the death of Joe's mother and Frank's wife a couple of years earlier. At the same time, Joe's adult sister (Alison Brie) has moved out of the house and to another town.
Meanwhile, Gabriel Basso plays Joe's best friend, Patrick, who is so fed up with his quirky and overbearing mom and dad that he has broken out in hives. The teens make the decision to run away from home and start a dream house in the woods with their mutual friend, Biaggio (Moises Arias), an oddball kid with an obsessive sense of loyalty. They build a house and vow to kill their own food, boil their own water, and not return to society.
Had the film gone off in a more courageous or even interesting direction, I think I would have liked "The Kings of Summer" a lot more. But nothing very daring happens in the film once the boys run away. They do wind sprints in an open field, go swimming, drink a few beers. Probably the funniest thing that happens is when Joe finds a Boston Market on the edge of the woods and decides to pass off their rotisserie chickens as game he shot and cooked up. But after a week, he decides he wants to impress Kelly (Erin Moriarity), a girl from school who he has never had the courage to ask out. He invites her to the house in the woods, but still is not able to vocalize his feelings, and she ends up going off with Patrick into the bushes. Jealousy ensues, and a house divided literally can't stand.
I'm sorry. That's just not a great plot. A teenage boy unable to ask a girl out at school and losing her to a friend has been a staple of family sitcoms for decades. I am not up on my reruns, but I'd be willing to bet everyone from Greg Brady to Theo Huxtable to anyone of the kids on the Disney Channel or Nickelodeon sitcoms of today have had that same thing happen to them.
The filmmakers are also willing to go only so far dramatically and emotionally in this film. None of the three boys is leaving a particularly bad house. Instead, the parents are all indie-movie quirky. They're more annoying than outright bad or abusive people. And when the film reaches end game, I was surprised by how few issues were actually resolved between parents and kids. You could say, "Well, that's closer to 'real life.'" But that's kind of a lazy way out for the director and writer. I found it also a bit unbelievable that no one tells Joe and Patrick, "Uh, you're only one year away from graduating high school and heading off to college or moving out on your own. DEAL!"
Still, there are some delights to be had. Offerman has a few killer lines throughout, especially when he is dealing with a dopey local cop who tries to explain to him the story of "The Boy Who Cried Wolf" as if he has never heard it before. For the most part, the casting is all spot-on, with Arias and Moriarity especially effective in their sounding board roles for Joe and Patrick. This just could have been so much more. In fact, it SHOULD have been so much more. I rate it a 4.5 out of 10. (T. Durgin)