We've all been there: you're 15, filled with angst, hormones raging, your parents are driving you insane, and you just can't wait to get the f— out of the house. You're still a kid, but longing for the sweet freedom of adulthood, fantasizing about finally striking out on your own, away from the rules and expectations of your parents. Perhaps those patron saints of adolescence, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, summed it up best when they explained: parents just don't understand. It's a feeling that director Jordan Vogt-Roberts and writer Chris Galletta clearly remember all too well and utilize to great effect in their hilarious and charmingly offbeat coming-of-age tale, "The Kings of Summer."
Joe (Nick Robinson) lives alone with his widower father, Frank (Nick Offerman, "Parks and Recreation"). The gulf between them, which existed even before the death of Joe's mother, has only gotten bigger as Frank has allowed his unhappiness to get the better of him, turning him bitter and antagonistic. Joe's older sister, Heather (Alison Brie, "Community"), offers a sympathetic ear during her occasional visits, but long ago saw her chance to escape, and hasn't really looked back since.
Meanwhile, Joe's best friend, Patrick (Gabriel Basso), is having trouble with his own parents (Megan Mullally and Marc Evan Jackson, both hilarious in roles that unfortunately amount to little more than caricatures). They are the very definition of helicopter parents, incessantly hovering over him and nitpicking every move he makes, to the extent that they've given the poor kid hives.
After stumbling across a secluded area deep within the woods, Joe, always the more industrious of the duo, thinks he's found the solution to their problems: they'll run away and build a home for themselves in the forest. Finally they'll be masters of their own destinies, and if their newfound independence impresses Kelly (Erin Moriarty), Joe's longtime crush, all the better. Somewhere along the way, they pick up Biaggio (Moises Arias), their oddball classmate, who just sort of shows up one day and gets absorbed into their ranks. Together the three boys make their own rules, living off the land (aside from occasional takeout from Boston Market when hunting proves a bit more difficult than anticipated), and taking advantage of their lack of supervision.
The concept behind "The Kings of Summer" is more than a little ridiculous, but the underlying emotions are real and Vogt-Roberts wisely plays them straight, even if the wild shifts in tone — alternating between wild flights of fancy, absurd humor, and earnest melodrama — sometimes threaten to give the audience whiplash. The film manages to break outside the box of traditional coming-of-age stories with a delightfully off-kilter sensibility. Not everything works all the time, but as a whole, the film maintains a goofy charm and by its end has gained a somewhat unexpected poignancy. There's even a scene late in the film of almost unbearable suspense and a dream sequence that plays like a scene out of "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World," proving Vogt-Roberts is capable of just about anything. This is the director's first feature film, and it's a debut that hints at greatness to come.
The film is anchored by strong performances from all three of the young leads. Robinson's performance deepens as the film goes on, making great use a boyish smile and eyes that suggest an endless capacity for mischief. Basso is soulful and sympathetic, even as his character takes some actions that might have proved unlikeable in a less capable actor's hands. But possibly best of all is Arias, who proves himself a master of the non sequitur and all but steals the movie with his kooky charm. I'm fighting the urge to segue into a list of some of his best lines, but I wouldn't want to ruin them. The roles for the adults are a bit slim, but Nick Offerman gets the most to do and he nails the role; he's playing a bastard, but his performance never obscures the wounded man underneath.
The film was shot in the woods of Ohio, and the locations are shown off to great effect in director of photography Ross Riege's lovely cinematography. The gorgeous shots of nature and the wildlife verge on Malick territory. Also noteworthy is the score by Ryan Miller, lead singer of the band Guster. His original music blends indie-rock with an 8-bit video-game sound, and it's remarkably effective at getting the audience into the mindset of a 15-year-old boy. With their help, "The Kings of Summer" captures the feeling of summer when you're a kid; the way that school and the "real" world are a distant memory, and those few months stretch out before you, seemingly filled with endless possibility.