Review: The Kings of Summer (2013)

I have a soft spot for coming of age stories. Films about youth, in particular young men, learning how to approach the adult world with some measure of wisdom and courage strike a chord with me. Thus, The Kings of Summer would seem to be my kind of film. And in certain ways it is, but not in the key ways that matter.

One half of the film is a whimsical and observant look at a young man’s desire to control his own world and affirm his own masculinity. That young man is Joe (Nick Robinson), a high school freshman who is finishing up the school year and suffering through the bottled rage of his father, Frank (Nick Offerman). Joe’s mom is dead, and Joe, being a mama’s boy, as Frank repeatedly points out, is still feeling the loss. In an effort to harden Joe up and help him adjust to his new way of life, Frank both neglects and belittles Joe, compounding the emotional loss Joe is already suffering.

One night after a drunken high school party, Joe and the oddball Biaggio (Moises Arias) wander through the woods on the way home and discover a beautiful little clearing. This spot gives Joe an idea and an escape from his father. Along with his best friend, Patrick (Gabriel Basso), and the tag-along Biaggio, Joe decides to move to the woods and construct a house where he can live out his adolescent fantasies of masculine independence.

This central conceit of building a house in the woods and living off the land leads to some great little moments, which director Jordan Vogt-Roberts has a keen eye for. There are beautiful shots here. Some are of the boys standing in a clearing in the middle of a field, golden and godlike against the setting Ohio sun and the shimmering tall grass. One shot of Patrick practicing his violin on the side of the forest stream seems taken from a different, gentler film. And there’s also the intriguing teaser of the boys pounding on an oil pipe they found in the woods, creating a drumbeat with every strike of the wood, which shows early promise.

However, the other half of the film undoes all this beauty and honesty. This half is a more conventional comedy. The recent film The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a perfect example of a film that knows how to entertain the audience but at the same time not betray its brutally honest portrait of teenage troubles. Sadly, The Kings of Summer doesn’t seem to trust the power of its charms to win the audience over.

Vogt-Roberts and writer Chris Galletta shoehorn in awkward moments and random jokes. Biaggio seems to be an amalgam of oddball traits meant to get laughs. In one scene he states, “I can read. But I can’t cry,” for inexplicable reasons. None of his behaviour is motivated by discernable character traits. If Joe and Patrick are both honest portraits of two-sides of contemporary teenage masculinity, Biaggio is just a hodgepodge of what Galletta finds to be the funniest and most stereotypical aspects of weirdos.

The film also has a strange undercurrent of misogyny. Joe’s masculine paradise is set-up directly in opposition to girls, and you almost get a sense that Joe hates women because he feels his mom abandoned him by dying. But none of this is ever explored. It pops up in character moments involving Joe only to fade away as the plot necessitates unearned growth on the part of the character.

Perhaps that’s The Kings of Summer’s biggest fault. While it can be funny and charming at points, you never really believe that Joe grows up at the end. And for a coming-of-age story, that just won’t do.

5 out of 10

The Kings of Summer (2013, USA)

Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts; written Chris Galletta; starring Nick Robinson, Gabriel Basso, Moseis Arias, Nick Offerman, Erin Moriarty, Megan Mullally, Marc Evan Jackson, and Alison Brie.