The Kings of Summer Adds New Quirks to an Old Formula

One really has to wonder why they even bother making coming-of-age movies anymore, given how the genre isn’t well-trodden so much as it has been paved over with a four-lane highway. But still, people keep finding the urge to make movies about one or more angsty teens or pre-teens, angst-ing away and eventually overcoming said angst in one way or the other.

Case in point, The Kings of Summer, the blandly titled  feature film debut of Jordan Vogt-Roberts. On the surface, Kings of Summer is about as generic a coming-of-age movie as you can get, but executed with enough technical skill and charming quirks that the end result is something akin to a meal you’ve eaten a million times given just enough new flavor to keep things interesting, like that time I put bacon bits in a grilled cheese sandwich.

Our protagonists are Joe and Patrick, a pair of perfectly bland middle-America teens fed up with their respective home situations. Joe is being raised by his single father, played by Parks and Rec‘s Nick Offerman, who basically just plays it like Ron Swanson with more facial hair and less anti-government fervor. Patrick’s parents are less “domineering, miserable asshole” and more Pleasantville, a relentlessly cheery pair played by Megan Mullally and Marc Evan Jackson, who (all respect to the man) really comes off like a poor man’s Clark Gregg.

KOS posterAfter Joe finds a secluded clearing deep in the forest, the plan is hatched to build a house from scratch and pull a Walden, or maybe a My Side of the Mountain,  living in seclusion in the woods “like real men.” The two are joined, somewhat against their will, by Moises Arias’ Biaggio, the completely transparent comic relief character.

What grabbed me right off the bat, and probably did the most to make me like the movie, beyond the occasional appearance of Alison Brie, was the visual style. The whole thing is shot in this washed out, grainy, shallow focus and somewhat lensflare-tastic way that seems determined to evoke old photographs from your childhood, the first of the film’s calculated attempts at subtly punching the viewer in the throat with nostalgia, with a few videogame style chiptunes thrown into the soundtrack as the second attack.

This movie wants you to start reminiscing about your childhood, and then find yourself overcome with “the feels” as the events of the movie play out. For the most part it works, and the movie’s lack of too many references to current culture and technology ensure a kind of timeless feeling.

Where things start to get a little humdrum is the characters. Joe and Patrick don’t really have much in the way of personality, being mostly just blank slates for the viewer to project on, and who spend most of the movie beating the old “My parents suck, nobody at school likes me and the cute blond girl wants little to do with my nether-parts” drum that coming-of-age teen movies have been wailing on like Neil Pert on speed for the last few decades.

Patrick is the slightly cooler one, Joe is the more emotional one, you’ve seen all this before. Almost in response to this, the film tosses out Biaggio, the wacky quiet kid/surrogate child figure in the ersatz family unit formed by the trio. Beyond providing comedy beats in the form of being weird, there’s really not much to him as a character and once you strip away all the amusing eccentricities, he’s revealed to just be a machine for providing comedic moments and a third-act crisis. Arias does a fine job with the limited role, though, even if it just feels like he’s treating the movie like an audition tape for a role in a future Wes Anderson movie.

KOS Biaggio

The story, once it gets underway, is similarly familiar and formulaic. Once the trio move out to their woodland getaway we get the expected montages of the kids jumping into water-filled gorges, dancing around fires and everything else you’d expect from a movie like this.

The inevitable conflict comes when Joe invites his painfully uncharacterized love interest to the house, because apparently women are still only really useful in movies as elements of chaos to be injected into otherwise orderly male lives. Jeez, you’d think the movie was made by Chris Nolan or something.

The monotony occasionally gets broken up by flourishes of quirk, like one scene where Joe fantasizes a battle with a sai-weilding Offerman, or an extremely Anderson-esque scene where Joe and Patrick drum on an old pipe with Biaggio dancing in the background.

It’s these little flourishes and the unique qualities of the photography and presentation that makes The Kings of Summer interesting. It’s not a great film, but there’s nothing really wrong with it either. Vogt-Roberts knows how to shoot a scene well and has a good eye for image texture and the few flashes of creativity keep the film from just being Stand By Me but without a chubby-cheeked Jerry O’Connel and the odd bit of projectile vomiting.

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