Review: The Kings of Summer
The Kings of Summer sounds like it should be a raucous beach movie the likes of which Frankie Avalon or Bruce Brown would be proud. Instead, it’s a kooky Sundance dramedy (originally titled "Toy's House") about three pubescent Napoleons Dynamite who scurry into the woods and build themselves a little fort. That’ll show their Mom and Dad, and their single Dad, and their mysterious “disembodied chin” dad who only appears in a single scene. You can tell that The Kings of Summer is a comedy because none of these heroes are running away from genuinely serious problems. Even the Goonies would tell these losers to go home and get a life.
But losers can also be lovable – an idea that Hollywood has banked on for well over a century – so The Kings of the Summer pokes gentle fun at all the flamboyant ways these geeks transform their summer project into an act of proper rebellion. It’s not these so-called sovereigns’ fault that their biggest problem is that their parents don’t listen very well. These guys are the heroes of their own story, so if it becomes necessary to self-aggrandize in order to make their autobiographies worth writing, then so be it. Joe (Nick Robinson) and Patrick (Gabriel Basso) run into the woods and construct a halfway decent clubhouse and then vow to live off the land because clearly they’re thinking this scenario out very, very well. Nothing could possibly go wrong. Incidentally, what is this copperhead skin doing so close to our campsite? Eh, it’s probably not important…
Joe and Patrick are joined by Biaggio (Moises Arias), the latest cinematic personification of the universal comic id, who is essentially a young and clean-shaven version of Alan from the various Hangover movies. Biaggio is good for a quick laugh, but his baffling inability to operate within any plausible movie universe nearly rips the film in twain: a “serious” coming of age story on one hand and every scene with Biaggio on the other. At one point Biaggio tells Joe that he thinks he gay because he has physical symptoms that Joe quickly recognizes as cystic fibrosis. Not only is homosexuality a throwaway joke, but now cystic fibrosis is as well, since the boy’s very serious medical condition is never referenced again. Surely if Biaggio had cystic fibrosis he would need to know about it, so his parents’ failure to at least attempt to provide Biaggio with proper care seemingly constitutes genuine criminal neglect.
But The Kings of Summer is willing to let that slide because, apparently, it’s far more important that Joe’s father (Nick Offerman) and Patrick’s parents (Megan Mullally and Marc Evan Jackson) reevaluate their already not-terrible parenting instead. Not that they’re going to win any awards for their child-rearing techniques – Joe’s dad is a petty grump and Patrick’s parents are somehow simultaneously overinvolved and underinvolved in his life – but The Kings of Summer places them in a strange juxtaposition with more serious problems and then expects us to be more concerned about the folks who, comparatively, have it pretty easy. Biaggio has some very serious emotional and psychological problems, but The Kings of Summer invites audiences to simply laugh a” him, and become deeply engaged in the very familiar “coming of age” clichés his friends go through instead, including friendship dissolution, heartbreaking girlfriends and dramatic family reunions.
The Kings of Summer has a likable personality overall, thanks largely to an engaging cast with impeccable comic timing, but the filmmakers’ self-conscious attempts to beef up a standard summer fable with all this goofy humor lessens the overall impact, leaving a film that demands to be taken seriously but lacks the confidence necessary to let a few minutes go by without some dorky comic interlude. Eventually the tone gets more dramatic, but by then the damage is done and any serious emotional effect is bound to be diminished by association with the rest of this comical movie. But so what if The Kings of Summer backs away from greatness and builds itself a little fort in indie comedy central instead? That's not so bad. It’s still a pretty neat fort.