A consistently intelligent (or at least bright), coherently constructed comedy that is on occasion a rather pointed critique of the American education system in the…
High school student Joe (Nick Robinson) lives with his father (Nick Offerman), a stern man sitting on a volcano of anger. Joe's mother has died. He has an older sister (played by "Mad Men"'s Alison Brie), but she is engaged and out of the house. The tension between father and son is oppressive, and the rules feel arbitrary and unfair to Joe. During one night when the family gathers to play Monopoly, like they used to do when Mom was alive, the tension explodes. Joe didn't want to play anyway, he wanted to go to a party with his friends. After a fight with his dad, Joe ends up calling the police, claiming physical abuse. It's a radical move, dark and evocative of a deep psychological schism. There's a furious and smart movie inside "The Kings of Summer," a first feature by director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, a film about three teenage boys who take to the woods to build a house from scratch and live outside not only parental supervision but community norms and expectations. Unfortunately, despite some beautiful sequences and solid acting, the script by first-timer Chris Galletta pulls its punches, over-explains the emotional meaning of its moments, and tries to lighten the mood in sometimes awkward sit-com-style ways, betraying the movie's more honest spirit. "The Kings of Summer" flirts with profundity, seeming to yearn for it and fear the honest expression of it at the same time. There is much here to admire, but the overall impression is of a film that does not have the courage of its convictions.
Joe and his buddy Patrick (played by the open-faced and extremely talented Gabriel Basso) have been friends since childhood. Joe has issues with his father, and Patrick is heckled and cooed over by his intrusive well-meaning parents (played, hilariously, by Megan Mullally and Marc Evan Jackson). Nothing seems bad enough here to warrant anyone running away, but "The Kings of Summer," to its credit, is going after a deeper more existential truth, common to most coming-of-age movies, the fact that teenagers are not only looking for freedom, but meaning in their lives. They want to be free to feel deeply, to connect to themselves in respect to their environments, and to choose a life that suits them.
One night, after a party, Joe and another kid, a bizarre human being named Biaggio (Moises Arias, who is phenomenal in the role) get lost coming home through the woods. They come upon an open glade, dark and mysterious in the moonlight, so beautiful that the two boys stop dead in their tracks. Joe gets the idea to remove himself from his father's home, and build a house in the woods with Patrick. Biaggio, since he was there that first night, is along for the ride. Patrick bones up on survivalist books from the library, treating the project seriously, liking the image of freedom and manliness that Joe paints for him. They draw floor plans, they pilfer materials from construction sites, they spend their days out in the woods building their house. And then, one night, all three sneak away from home and move in.
The community, of course, thinks they have been kidnapped and two cops (Mary Lynn Rajskub and Thomas Middleditch, both fantastic) are assigned to investigate. The parents back home wonder what they did, and Joe's dad, in one awful line, confesses to Patrick's dad, "I think I've broken my son."