Starring: Nick Robinson (Joe Toy), Gabriel Basso (Patrick Keenan), Moises Arias (Biaggio), Nick Offerman (Frank Toy), Alison Brie (Heather Toy), Megan Mullaly (Mrs. Keenan), Marc Evan Jackson (Mr. Keenan), Erin Moriarty (Kelly)
This Midwest coming-of-age tale premiered to generally positive feedback at Sundance 2013. Shot in Ohio, The Kings of Summer also played, quite appropriately at the Cleveland Film Festival before its commercial release.
Coming of age; dysfunctional families; quirky comedy
Joe and Patrick are best buddies, united in their unhappiness towards high school—and their families. Joe’s dad Frank is tough-as-nails and totally lacking in empathy towards anyone, especially his kid. Patrick’s folks turn their over-protectiveness into a black comic ritual, leaving their son no room to even lodge a protest to them.
One night, after a family game of Monopoly that goes way beyond the term “killer,” Joe has had enough. He decides to build a house in the woods just outside of the city. After a bit of protesting, Patrick joins in, as does a crazy kid named Biaggio, who seems to have adopted them. Their dreams of living a natural life are a bit skewed: Joe and Biaggio go hunting for food and return with chicken from a convenience store. But they’re happy for a time.
Meanwhile, Joe’s dad and Patrick’s parents have called in the police but a manhunt turns up nothing. All is fine in the adolescent paradise until Joe brings back Kelly, a girl he fancies, and a couple of her friends, for a dinner party in the woods. Turns out that Kelly likes Patrick a lot more than Joe. And Joe turns out to be a poor loser.
With their dreams unraveling, the “kings of summer” have to decide whether to return to civilized life. And their parents have to decide whether they should treat their returned “kings” differently if and when they come back to routine life in Ohio.
In a film like this, the kids have to be persuasive actors—and they are. But it’s the performances of the parents that are stellar. Nick Offerman is hilarious as Joe’s dad: the veteran of the quirky TV series Parks and Recreation has become a master of indignation and pig-headedness. At one point, he asks his daughter “Am I obnoxious?” Duh.
Almost as good but in a much smaller roll is Megan Mullaly as Patrick’s oblivious mom. Her sunny smile and absolute disregard for her son is painfully hilarious. And it’s amusing to contemplate that Ms. Mullaly, also a Parks and Rec vet, is the real-life wife of Mr. Offerman. The mind reels at the thought of their potential progeny.
The creative team
The Kings of Summer doesn’t seem to have been thought through in terms of plot and character development. One gaping hole is the manhunt; the kids haven’t built their house in a tough place for the authorities to locate.
Far worse is the lack of imagination shown in the sequences when the lads are free. Apart from a rather inspired bit when the Joe and Patrick drum on a large industrial pipe abandoned in the woods with Biaggio creating a mad dance to their rhythms, nothing much happens to them. They hunt, they hang out in the woods and there are bits of low comedy about the oddball ways of Biaggio. Surely freedom should mean more—or at least be funnier—than this.
The Kings of Summer is a good Indie film that had the potential to be great. What you see on screen is an intermittently funny and revealing commentary about contemporary suburban life and the ways of adolescents. It’s a reasonably good film—worth seeing now, or later on DVD or even on TV.