Movie Review: The Kings of Summer (2013)
In sixth grade I read “My Side of the Mountain,” a young adult novel about a kid who gets fed up with family life and carves out an existence in a huge tree in the woods and has all sorts of adventures. I loved it. I was never that brave, or that adept in the wilderness (Indian Guides rather than Boy Scouts), so the furthest I got was a deep shelf in the back of the family garage. I set up a little fortress there, which is where I fled during family squabbles.
Joe (Nick Robinson) is made of sturdier stuff, and, when his widowed father, Frank (Nick Offerman), lays down harsh laws at the beginning of another high school summer, Joe bolts for a clearing in the nearby woods, dragging along his best friend, Patrick (Gabriel Basso), and Biaggio (Moises Arias), the odd kid in school. Together, with tools they’ve stolen from their parents, and supplies they’ve stolen from around town—wood paneling, a slide, window panes and an outhouse door—they build a reasonable facsimile of a very leaky house. And that’s where they spend the summer, having adventures.
Usually these adventures are slow-mo montages backed by a song. They jump off a small cliff and into a river. They punch each other and we watch the muscles and skin ripple. At one point, with machetes, Joe and Biaggio go hunting. They climb a hill expecting to see animals on the other side; instead, it’s a freeway with a Boston Market. Wuh-wuhr. So they buy chicken and bring it back. For some reason, they pretend to Patrick that they caught it and cooked it. Wucka wucka.
For a time, I was thinking that writer Chris Galletta and director Jordan Vogt-Roberts had given us this wonderful gift: a summer movie without super-powered beings or high-tech gizmos. They’d given us a movie about kids who don’t want to watch TV. But TV is never far away because much of the movie has a sitcom feel. The parents are too loopy, the kids too mature—except with each other, when they revert to odd lies and behaviors. Joe, who starts out hapless (he brings a crappy birdhouse to the last day of school, a week late), quickly becomes a James Franco figure: full of empty blather and not much else. There’s a girl, Kelly (Erin Moriarity), a pretty blonde, who seems interested in him. But when he brings her to their hiding place, she goes for Patrick. We don’t blame her. It doesn’t help that at this point Joe is cultivating The Worst Teenage Moustache Ever.
Their adventures in the woods are never that interesting, and the music to back up these adventures is lousy. Honestly, it’s one of the worst indie soundtracks I’ve heard. It’s almost a relief to get out of the woods, which feel increasingly muggy and bug-ridden and claustrophobic, and back to the parents and their search for their kids. Nick Offerman (“Parks and Recreation”) gives us his usual droll line readings. (“It’s clearly a kidnapping,” he says to Patrick’s parents. “They took the kids, and the pasta and the canned goods.”) Patrick’s Mom, Megan Mullally (“Will & Grace”), delivers dingy non sequiturs. Is that the reason for the sitcomy feel? That most of the actors cut their teeth on sitcoms?
In the end, not halfway through the summer, the boys are home, lessons are learned, rifts are mended. “The Kings of Summer” was not filmed before a live studio audience but it might as well have been.