ShareThis Page

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

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

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.