The Kings of Summer was one of the first out of the gate, but has been the last entry in 2013's summer coming-of-age tales that I was able to view. It comes sooner after seeing The Spectacular Now than any other margin between the other films which may or may not detract from what I thought of the film, but as it is more easily compared to something of a mix between Mud and The Way, Way Back I was rather thrilled by what I received here in terms of conveying what nostalgia means to different people and why it is so vital to our existence. While it is difficult to say one is better than the other, what The Kings of Summer has going for it is a distinct set of style. In his feature debut Jordan Vogt-Roberts has enlivened the typical going-ons of the doldrums of summer to a couple of teenagers by infusing it with a lively sense of location and purpose in character that isn't so easily defined in script form. Not to take away from the script which has given the director and his stars solid, genuine characters to work with and a wry sense of humor that consistently surprises with its timing and wit. While the most obvious culprit of this highly funny film comes in the form of Moises Arias's odd man out Biaggio (and he is so awkwardly hilarious and random it will be what you take away from the film), but I was more surprised at the level of inclusion that Nick Offerman's character received and the level at which Vogt-Roberts seems to have allowed him to let his own sense of humor run free. At its core, The Kings of Summer is as much a story of childhood friends and making memories as it is the story of a father and son relationship that has had an unbelievable amount of strain placed on it due to the loss of the wife and mother in the scenario. Both Offerman and other feature newcomer, Nick Robinson, who plays his son Joe bring a covered mournfulness to their performances that tell us early on their is something more to who these people are and that we should stay engaged to get to know them better, watch them grow and come to realize how special and how humble it is simply living in the now. Good news for audiences is that it isn't tough to stay engaged given the caliber of inventiveness, writing and performances on display here. That it doesn't suffer from fatigue is a minor miracle, that it manages to turn out a few memorable moments to define itself bodes all the better for it.

From left: Joe (Nick Robinson), Biaggio (Moises Arias), and Patrick (Gabriel Basso) in The Kings of Summer
Screenwriter Chris Galletta (also his first stab at feature work) has crafted a story that pits two best friends and one obscure oddball against the world. This, in their minds, are particularly the parents they no longer want to deal with. Joe (Robinson) lives alone with his dad, Frank (Offerman) and the two are constantly butting heads. Whether it be over simple things like shower time to delicate subjects that have Frank trying to reinstate "family game night" when he gets a new girlfriend (something that hasn't been done since Joe's mom  passed away). He longs to leave with his sister, Heather (Alison Brie) and her off-kilter boyfriend Colin (Eugene Cordero) who visit from college every now and then, but he knows that can't really happen. He'd rather be at school because at least there he can stare at Kelly (Erin Moriarty) who seems to genuinely like him, but also happens to have an older boyfriend that Joe has no chance of competing with. Joe's best friend Patrick (Gabriel Basso of Super 8) doesn't have similar problems in the way he's being treated at home, but only in the relationship he has with his seemingly perfectly suburban parents. Mr. and Mrs. Keenan (Megan Mullally and Marc Evan Jackson) are the very overcompensating couple who work in their gardens on the weekends, wear nicely color-coordinated outfits and pick over everything Patrick does including why he eats all of the fries before he gets to his burger. It is easy to see why the kids are fed up with their situations and we've all been in that position where we are at the age of being right on the cusp of growing up, but still considered a child by the rest of the population. That is where we find Nick and Joe, in those last summers where no job is required, where they have the free time to do as they please with no responsibilities yet feel constrained to the world around them because of the gatekeepers that stand watch just outside their bedrooms. When fleeing from a party that was broken up on the last day of school and meeting up with Biaggio (Arias) Nick stumbles upon an open piece of land. "What is it?" Biaggio asks. "Someplace they won't find you," Nick replies. The rest is history.

It doesn't take much to convince Patrick that moving out into the woods is a good idea and Biaggio seemingly has no connection to the outside world anyway so we are then thrust into the action of this trio of boys striking out to build their own house and live as men, on their own and providing for themselves. The nature of this scenario is that it is a space filled with the opportunity for little moments. Naturally, that it is a movie in the vein of those like Stand By Me, with elements of The Goonies it is once the boys get into the woods and let their imaginations run wild that it becomes this coming-of-age adventure and connects the audience watching it, whether they have yet to experience these summers or long for the days that have passed, to find a nostalgic sting in what is going on here ( though it should only be the latter crowd as the film earns an R rating), but either way the film delivers as both strong entertainment value and a familiar loving tale of all that is right with the young mindset. It is easy to see in each of the boys that look of wonder, of curiosity that inclines them to want to go out and discover what they have yet to see in the world and the tragedy is that more times than not we know these guys will come to discover the world they are living in isn't the one they thought they were or believe they should be. The Kings of Summer doesn't stray from the strains of friendship at that age either and it allows the natural tension to build between best friends Patrick and Joe while having their new environment only bring these issues to the surface at a pace and in a way that translates as a more personal venture than how they might have ever come to light were it to happen in the hallways of their school or even worse, behind the walls of their homes where it would be kept from one another until they grew apart completely. This interrogation into the friendship is a highlight of the film in how it is handled, but moreso it provides the crux of the story that otherwise would have allowed it to meander. It serves as the conflict that helps move the film along while helping it glide almost effortlessly from moments of heavy drama to bits of hilarious comedy without leaving the audience feeling bewildered by what exactly the film is aiming for. It is hard to classify the film in a single genre and this is a fair approach for director Vogt-Roberts to make as he conveys this by using wonderful cinematography and a perfectly tinged soundtrack to elicit the mood of the film while allowing his players to create the authentic world these characters make for themselves.

Patrick shares a moment with Kelly (Erin Moriarty).
Speaking of the players, it is due to their honest portrayals and inherent chemistry that the relationships and back and forth work so well. The script could have likely been looked at as fairly thin given the story is essentially a few guys hanging out in the woods encountering some standard issues as well as the few unexpected incidents that obviously will come along with living in the woods, but add into that a cast that has the chops to come off as nothing short of genuine and you have a film that could float by on performances and charisma alone. Beginning with feature newcomer Robinson who's been in a few sitcoms, but certainly hasn't had the opportunity to lead an ensemble, does a fine job here of never over-doing anything, but instead conveying the frustration of having to move on and live with his dad while the more depressed and sad side of Joe over the loss of his mother remains hidden under his aspirations as a way to distract him, but we can still see it seep through in his moments of pause. Paired with Basso's Patrick who has nothing truly legitimate to complain about other than the fact his parents love him too much he is a nicely balanced guy who means well and doesn't care to offend anyone, but wants to do what is best for him and go after what he wants even if not everyone in his life agrees. The film essentially rests on their shoulders and they carry it well; being able to appeal to any young man who ever relished their summers and wished their winters away with the impatience of becoming an adult, but never really wanting to grow up. As I said before, the main source of comedy is Arias' off-centre Biaggio who steals every scene in which he has dialogue. Surrounding them further are the more established actors who give a solid surface to build from and the experience to perfectly encapsulate the seemingly incomprehensible adults that would push these guys to such extremes. Truly, I enjoyed every aspect of this film and that stands as a real testament having seen several films over the past few months with similar themes, but The Kings of Summer stands out for its highly-stylized look and specific observations that come through in perfectly balanced performances. A competent coming-of-age tale for sure, but a reminder of the innocence and ambition we should always maintain in life pervades above all else.

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