It’s hard to describe The Kings of Summer without making it sound like every other damned coming-of-age film you’ve seen. It’s the story of a couple of high-school friends, Joe (Nick Robinson) and Patrick (Gabriel Basso), who feel misunderstood by their families and run away from home one summer to build a house in the woods and live by themselves. (They’re also joined by a third boy, Biaggio, played by Hannah Montana’s Moises Arias, who isn’t quite a friend but somehow enters their two-man circle in ways unclear.) While their parents desperately look for them, our woodland pioneers are faced with problems both mundane and profound — whether it’s how to hunt your food in a suburban forest that houses mostly rodents and snakes, or how to deal when the girl you like hooks up with your best friend.
The Kings of Summer is far from original, but it’s also far stranger than it seems, in ways both good and bad. Recognizable faces in bit parts are standard issue for coming-of-age fare, but here the supporting cast is a murderers’ row of comic actors who threaten to send things spinning off in other directions. Parks and Recreation’s Nick Offerman plays Joe’s comically bitter widower dad, with whom the boy has the kind of cutting, sarcastic exchanges that betray both deep familiarity and hostility. Meanwhile, Patrick’s parents are played by Megan Mullally and Marc Evan Jackson, both of whom are perfect at portraying the kind of aggressively square types who might conceivably drive a confused teenage boy insane.
As a result, the movie is often quite funny, at least when the parents and assorted adult cast members are onscreen. (Two out-of-their-element cops played by Mary Lynn Rajskub and the always great Thomas Middleditch also stand out.) The problem is that the goofiness of these comic scenes never feels of a piece with the ostensibly more naturalistic, “sensitive” central story of the lost boys themselves. It’s hard not to feel at times like you’re watching two different movies — one in which a wide array of two-dimensional supporting characters say and do funny, unrealistic things, and another in which two seemingly ordinary kids learn valuable life lessons or whatever. It doesn’t help that the blandly ordinary Robinson and Basso, while talented actors, don’t really convey awkwardness that well; they’re a far cry from the Michael Ceras and Jesse Eisenbergs of the world, and it’s hard to buy them as outsiders.
Visually, the film is often lovely. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts has a flair for seemingly offhand imagery — a face fragmented in a glass door panel, a cathedral-like wall of greenery in a forest clearing. And the stylized cutting often keeps us on edge, too. Early on, a hammer raised in slow-motion juxtaposed with a flashback to a smiling girl effectively hints at the violent, uncomfortable emotions held in check by the characters, and it does so better than any actual onscreen incident or dialogue exchange does.
But occasionally arresting technique can seem empty — or worse, deliberately distracting — when the story itself doesn’t hold together. And alas, despite some cursory, screenwriting-101 attempts at resolution near the end, The Kings of Summer never reconciles its two extremes of broad comedy and delicate drama. One fears that Vogt-Roberts and screenwriter Chris Galletta are using comedy as a way to avoid addressing why these kids feel so alienated from their families and their lives: It’s easy to make Joe and Patrick seem out of step with the rest of their world if you make everyone else a caricature.* Maybe the filmmakers want to mimic an adolescent mind-set in which everyone else besides the subject is a freak or insane or cruel — but here it comes off as opportunistic at best, insensitive at worst. I was particularly bothered by the treatment of oddball third-wheel Biaggio, who seems to bond with Joe and Patrick but is never really allowed to graduate beyond the comic-relief role of non-sequitur-spouting weirdo. And so, for all its humor and fleeting moments of beauty, The Kings of Summer feels like a cluster of cheap narrative devices posing as a finished film.
* This review initially stated the screenwriter’s name as Rich Galletta. It is Chris Galletta.