Jordan Voght-Robert’s directorial debut, The Kings of Summer, is an artistically shot poignant drama about the wilderness years between childhood and manhood that also just happens to be blisteringly funny.
From a screenplay by Chris Galleta, a writer the Late Show with David Letterman, Kings of Summer is story of three mid-teens from Midwest America who build themselves a dream home in a nearby forest as a means of gaining life experiences and becoming ‘men’. In reality, for two of these boys, it’s also a way to escape their overbearing parents. Joe (Nick Robinson), the brains, has become isolated from his father’s coldness. Patrick (Gabriel Basso) is the muscle and has begun to break out in hives in reaction his parent’s excruciatingly cheerful henpecking. For the third boy, Biaggio (Moises Arias) this is an opportunity to be part of something.
The three leads are superb. Despite some dialogue that feels a little bit lost in the mouths of teenagers, they each strongly portray that impossible age of reasoning when the world seemingly owes you something and is refusing let go of it. Arias is particularly special as the puppy-boy eager to please. It’s easy to dismiss his part as nothing more than a foil to Robinson and Basso’s straight men routine, but dust away the topsoil and you have a complex character. One struggling with his issues of friendship, sexuality and acceptance.
As much as this is about the children, this film is equally focused on the parents. In particular, Joe’s father, Frank (Nick Offerman). Widowed only a few years before we meet him, Frank stomps around his house like a bear with a sorehead a music festival, starting fights with delivery men and family members. Constantly banging heads with Joe, he initially sees his son’s absconding as a personal vendetta. Whilst Joe holds up in the forest, failing to catch food and growing a moustache, Frank goes on a journey of growing up himself. Offerman is wonderful, capturing an aspect of parenting that is grotesque caricature, touchingly human and utterly familiar to anyone who has fought with a guardian or parent figure.
There are splashes of absurdity in The Kings of Summer that could have, if handled incorrectly, rocked the boat and brought you out of the film. However, these are dampened by Voght-Robert’s simple, dreamlike direction that suggest that the whole story is merely part of an afternoon’s reminiscing by an adult Joe.
With this, Stoker, The Way Way Back and Mud, it could be suggested that the coming of age genre is once again coming of age. And as the zombies, remakes and reimaginings start making us run for our own shelter, maybe this isn’t such a bad thing.