The Kings of Summer is a lovely movie about friendship, and of course, coming of age -- none of these things are new, but this movie somehow sets itself apart. It's always nice to see sincere depictions of close friendship between young men, without any of the cheesy machismo of the past. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, with his first feature length film, manages this even while the kids wax poetic about "being men."
Joe (Nick Robinson) is a fifteen-year-old who apparently gets picked on a bit at school (we only see this once) but still isn't a miserable loner; he's got at least one best friend, Patrick (Gabriel Basso), and one of the things they bond over is how alienated they feel from their parents. In the case of the parents, only Joe's relationship with his widowed father (an excellent Nick Offerman) particularly rings true. Patrick's parents (Marc Evan Jackson and Megan Mullaly), on the other hand, are caricatures of a goody-two-shoes couple that are completely out of touch. His mom constantly says odd things like, "Would you like a wet rag?" These characters are consistently funny, but never quite coalesce as a concrete reason to make Patrick want to run away.
It does take some convincing; it's Joe, who hates living alone with his dad as his sister (Alison Brie) is off living with a weirdly eager-to-please boyfriend, who makes the decision to run away and live "off the land" in a house in the woods they build themselves. I'm not sure how realistic it is that these guys could build a house -- granted it looks a little more like a glorified shack -- as functional as it turns out being. And it was not lost on me that there did not appear to be a bathroom in there. Did they all just shit in the woods? There's never any discussion about such practical matters.
A third boy joins them, Biaggio (Moises Arias). Biaggio, seemingly a foot shorter than the other guys, serves as a sort of weird sidekick, an eccentric prone to saying very strange and random things. His presence is far from vital in this story, although Arias certainly makes him interesting. Biaggio doesn't even meet Joe and Patric until they cross paths at a kegger, and happens to be tagging along with Joe when they discover the beautiful clearing in the middle of the woods.
There are some shades of Stand By Me in this movie, except without a dead body or an extended vomit scene. It is another story of young boys making their own way in the woods. It could be said that, in the way Stand By Me is a clear reflection of the eighties, The Kings of Summer is a clear reflection of the tens. But then, what do I know? I'm not a fifteen-year-old boy living in 2013. Only other high school kids could really tell you if these characters and their relationships with each other ring true. To me, they certainly seemed to.
The inevitable conflict comes when Joe invites a girl he likes to visit the house in the woods, and she falls for Patrick. Joe's dad seems like the type who might say to him -- if they were talking -- "That’s life, kid." But this is a story of how "that's life" has to be experienced for the lesson to sink in; being simply told never works.
Through most of the summer that these kids are gone, the local town is searching for the missing boys. We see a lot of discussions with Joe's and Patrick's parents and the local police, much of it rather amusing, about where they might be. Biaggio's parents are for some reason never involved; we get just one scene of Biaggio speaking in Spanish to his dad, who responds to him in English. I'm still wondering what the deal was with that scene.
As you can see, it's easy to describe The Kings of Summer and make it sound like one odd movie indeed. Yet, while watching it, it doesn't feel so odd. It all comes down to the friendship between the boys, and you can't help but be engaged and invested, thanks to a successful mixture of wonderful casting and surprisingly lovely editing and cinematography. This is the kind of movie that makes you a little wistful, reminding you of the freedom of youth -- the kind of freedom that youth never realizes they had until it's gone.