The first feature film from "Funny or Die..." director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, "The Kings of Summer" isn't very funny and dies slowly but surely as a coming-of-age film that bludgeons the viewer with its own quirkiness. Newcomer Nick Robinson stars as 15-year-old Joe, a mopey outsider who is constantly locking horns with his widowed father Frank (Nick Offerman). Angry that Frank has a new woman in his life, he happens upon a clearing in the woods following the break-up of an end-of-school party and concocts an idea to run away from home and live off the land for the summer. Best friend Patrick (Gabriel Basso), also having grown tired of his overbearing parents (Megan Mullally and Marc Evan Jackson), follows suit, while the oddball, enigmatic Biaggio (Moises Arias) tags along, completing the trifecta.
As if the audience is too stupid to figure out what they are watching, one of the guys announces early on, "This is our rite of passage." Thanks, buddy, for that quaint description. Joe, Patrick and Biaggio build a two-story house by themselves over the span of a music montage, then spend their days running through fields, gazing at the scenic view from a nearby cliff, and banging on pipes while dancing around. In the meantime, they get dirty, grow five o'clock shadows, and end of getting Boston Market for dinner when they have trouble catching their own game. While the summer is somehow supposed to be very meaningful for these three guys, even after things take a turn for the worse and a pretty classmate, Kelly (Erin Moriarty), gets in between Joe and Patrick, all that the viewer can do is silently stew about how selfish and entitled these protagonists are. Sure, Joe's dad is hard on him, but that's mostly because Joe is a jerk to him first. Patrick, meanwhile, has no reason at all to abandon his parents, who are mildly clueless but pleasant and loving toward him. Why would they want to go unbathed for three monthswithout electricity or air conditioning, to bootwhile putting their families through hell as they turn to the police for help in finding their missing children? Not for a moment do they think about anyone but themselves. Let's hope the aforementioned "rite of passage" includes realizing there are other people who exist in the world and it's not always about them.
"The Kings of Summer" is contrived, and oftenBiaggio is not a person, he's a gimmick missing a punchlineand viewers could get mighty drunk if they created a drinking game out of every time the camera pans in on Joe as he smiles triumphantly while staring into the distance. As unctuous as it all is, the performers acquit themselves admirably and there is a certain surprising truth to platonic male relationships by the graceful ending. In addition to leads Nick Robinson and Gabriel Basso (2011's "Super 8
"), as Joe and Patrick, there are fine turns from Erin Moriarty (2012's "The Watch
"), destined to only ever be Joe's friend, as Kelly; Megan Mullally (2009's "Fame
"), the one comic bright spot as Patrick's mother, who describes the movie she just watched, "Hancock
," as starring "that guy who was 'The New Prince'," and Alison Brie (2012's "The Five-Year Engagement
"), bringing levity to Joe's older sister, Heather, who gives their dad a much-needed reality check. In between those solitary moments of honesty, though, is a lot of hooey, the screenplay by Chris Galletta more often than not going for the obvious and strained to drive a point home. "The Kings of Summer" has been compared in certain circles to 1986's quintessential, possibly ultimate, coming-of-age film "Stand by Me." The makers of "Stand by Me" should find a way to sue for slander.