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The Kings of Summer

June 7, 2013
Kings of Summer

At one point, “alternative rock” really meant something outside the well-traveled mainstream of popular music, until it became pretty much just another genre. The same thing happened to “indie” rock, and also to “indie” film. Now major studios open art-ish branches like Fox Searchlight, and what felt new and vibrant twenty years ago has now beaten trails through the forest almost anyone can follow. Not that indie films are bad, but they’re comfortable.

And the coming-of-age story that’s all but tailor-made for young auteurs trying to make names for themselves in a voracious industry feels a lot less personal when you stack up a dozen of them in a row and watch them all hit the same beats over and over and over again. So a film like The Kings of Summer comes as a breath of fresh air: a story about boys desperate to forge their own paths into manhood that actually forges some paths for itself.

For one thing, the film forgoes the usual sensitive, artistic protagonist, outcast from his peers — that obvious stand-in for the filmmaker’s idealized self-image. Sure, Joe Toy (Nick Robinson) has some hassles at school, but he takes them in stride. No, his real tension is with his father, Frank (Nick Offerman); their relationship has been more and more strained since Joe’s mother died, and it’s reaching a breaking point. Joe’s best friend Patrick (Gabriel Basso), on the other hand, gets nothing but sweetness from his parents (Megan Mullally and Marc Evan Jackson). They’re cloying; he’s even coming down with hives.

So the two of them — and the weird kid Biaggio (Moises Arias) — go to the woods to live deliberately and deep, to suck all the marrow out of life. With what little they learned in wood shop and some random supplies lifted from a nearby construction site they erect a surprisingly sturdy house in a clearing. They move in, intending to hunt and forage when the canned food they took from their homes runs out. They set their own schedule, make their own rules, and have the sort of independent, unstructured time to try and succeed or fail on their own terms that suburban kids today are so rarely allowed.

Screenwriter Chris Galletta addresses the common questions of identity and self-determination much more directly than the usual indie bildungsfilm style does. The boys feel like real teenagers, filling a vast summer in the woods by exploring, swimming, banging on things with sticks, chopping stuff in mid-air with a machete, and punching contests. Robinson and Basso have a great rapport as friends, while Robinson and Offerman are great as father and son. Arias is simply incredible as Biaggio; the character has the funniest lines I’ve heard in a long time, and Arias steals every scene where he speaks.

On top of that, first-time feature director Jordan Vogt-Roberts crafts a striking visual style. Chunks of the film slip into summer hangout montages or idle adolescent fantasies. Even the regular action slows down in certain moments, recalling the uneven
moment-to-moment focus of youth.

I have no hesitation saying this is easily one of my favorite movies so far this year. It’s fundamentally honest and consistently funny, and everyone involved has reason to be proud of their work.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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