Friday, June 21, 2013

Movie Review: The Kings of Summer

Coming of age tales are to independent film what romantic comedies are to the mainstream Hollywood corporate machine. I don't mean that as an expression of quality (the average coming of age indie is creatively and artistically miles ahead of the average Katherine Heigl starrer) but as an expression of quantity and, at times, an over-reliance on familiar tropes and rote mechanics.

On paper, you'd be forgiven for thinking The Kings of Summer is just another version of a movie you've seen before and will see again: three high-school age teenagers, frustrated by the oppressive hand of their obnoxious parents, set off on their own in search of life, love, freedom and adventure. It is similar in spirit to last year's Moonrise Kingdom, and this year's upcoming The Way, Way Back, in that its portrayal of a carefree youthful summer is nostalgic to the point of pseudo-fantasy. But it also shares with those films a vibrant, colorful and infectious joy that reminds us why we bother romanticizing childhood in the first place.

Kings tells the story of best friends Joe (Nick Robinson) and Patrick (Gabriel Basso), who head to the woods and build an impressive makeshift home to escape from their homes, families and the doldrums of teenage existence. Joe is the son of cantankerous widower Frank (a perfectly surly Nick Offerman) who we learn has drifted apart from his children after the death of his wife. Patrick is the son of an overly-involved WASP couple played by Megan Mullally (Offerman's IRL spouse) and Marc Evan Jackson, whose smothering parenting style has cause their son to break out in hives.
Patrick and Joe are joined on their adventure by Biaggio (Moises Arias) an intense idiosyncratic enigma who appears out of nowhere and proceeds to spin comedic gold out of every second of screen time he's given.

The film's sparse plot follows the boys approaching a quasi-religious Nirvana in their own personal Walden while their anxious parents search with the help of a pair of small-town police officers (Thomas Middleditch and 24's Mary Lynn Rajskub). At the same time, the movie is structured as a series of comedic vignettes, some of which inform character and plot while others are played for nonsensical comedy. It's a winning combination of heart and wit that tells us what we need to know while conscious there's no sense wasting a stellar cast of comedy actors.

Things eventually come to a head when the boys relationship is soured by the one thing that inevitably sours a teenage friendship in movies like these: a girl. Her interference is the ripple in the water that leads to a falling out between our three kings and to Joe being forced to confront the idea that he's maybe not as ready for a life of self-sufficiency as he thought.

I truly loved this film, for its quiet beauty and for the hearty laughs it provides in spades. But I admit that its ending leaves something to be desired, perhaps because it's light tone doesn't allow for a satisfying confrontation of the emotions between parent and son. And despite the utter, tear-producing hilarity of Biaggio, the third member of our musketeers is mostly a punch line and never made into a fully-realized character.

But those criticisms are the difference between a perfect and near-perfect recommendation and are partly due to my personal discomfort in giving out two A grades in a single week. See this film, I beseech you! It is a captivating and inspiring piece of cinema, one of those rare gems that makes you long for the beauty of days past and yearn for the beauty of days to come.

Grade: A-

*The Kings of Summer opens in Utah on Friday, June 21.

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