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'The Kings of Summer' is OK, but doesn't exactly rule

| Thursday, July 4, 2013, 8:55 p.m.
Courtesy of CBS Films
Gabriel Basso, Moises Arias and Nick Robinson in 'The Kings of Summer'

A movie has been made that captures adolescence — from its evanescent innocence to its tentative grasps at autonomy — with uncommon sensitivity, plunging viewers back into their own summer idylls of exploration, self-expression and heartbreak. It's called “Mud.”

As for “The Kings of Summer” — which treads the same territory with far more self-conscious artiness and snarky humor — the most generous assessment might be: Nice try.

The directorial debut of Jordan Vogt-Roberts, this coming-of-age tale of three high school boys searching to break free of their overbearing parents often seems cobbled together from other, better movies — including “Mud,” with which it shares not only the conceit of a self-made secret hideout but a tense climactic scene. Like “Stand By Me,” “Dazed and Confused” and “Superbad” before it — with occasional Terrence Malick-y montages of lush wheat fields and small woodland creatures — “The Kings of Summer” pays homage to youthful adventure and rebelliousness, even if it never offers much by way of renewed meaning or visceral, vicarious enjoyment.

Newcomer Nick Robinson plays Joe Toy, a high-schooler who is suffering the twin indignities of a dysfunctional relationship with his widowed father, Frank (Nick Offerman), and an unrequited crush on a blonde stunner named Kelly (Erin Moriarty). Joe's best friend Patrick (Gabriel Basso) has his own gripes, in the form of his desperately lame and overprotective parents (played by Megan Mullally and Marc Evan Jackson), who refer to television as “the cable” and ask him if he'd like a cool washcloth when he gets home from school (cue eye-roll).

After a particularly petulant blow-up over a Monopoly game, Joe vows to strike out on his own, eventually dragging along Patrick and a quirky tagalong named Biaggio (Moises Arias) as he builds his own dream shack in a forest behind a suburban housing development. Together, the boys explore, bond and make sneaky raids on a nearby Boston Market, while their families work with the local constabulary to find them and bring them home.

Written by Chris Galletta, “The Kings of Summer” trafficks in humor that is more jokey than observational, leaning heavily on Arias to deliver feats of gracefully gawky dancing and weird non sequiturs about learning to die from a dog and confusing homosexuality with cystic fibrosis.

Gags about race and gender round out a script that too often invokes snarky entitlement instead of genuine longing or alienation. With his Clearasil complexion and breezily abrasive put-downs, Joe doesn't emerge as a particularly sympathetic character, even when he's supposed to be grieving. If anything, “The Kings of Summer” presents a textbook example of why putting characters through their plotty paces is fundamentally different from creating emotional investment or authentically high stakes.

“The Kings of Summer” isn't without laughs, and there are moments when it attractively evokes the humid fecundity of a Midwestern summer (it was filmed in and around Chagrin Falls, Ohio). But without the benefit of deeper psychological spadework, “The Kings of Summer” stays resolutely on the surface, resembling more of an extended sitcom than a memorable movie on a par with the films it references. When their sojourn inevitably ends, it feels like the title characters haven't done much more than go into the mild.

Ann Hornaday is a movie critic for The Washington Post.

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