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Catching Up on 2013: The Kings of Summer

February 10th, 2014
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This film didn’t quite make my Best Movies of 2013 list, but it was nevertheless one of my favorites of the many 2013 films I saw in late December as I prepared my end-of-the-year best-of lists.

The Kings of Summer (written by Chris Galletta and directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts) is a small film that tells the story of one impactful summer in the lives of three oddball friends.  Joe (Nick Robinson) and Patrick (Gabriel Basso) have been friends for years.  Both of the teenaged boys are miserable in their home-lives, albeit for opposite reasons.  Joe’s single father (Nick Offerman) is domineering and borderline cruel, while Patrick’s parents (played by Megan Mullally and Marc Evan Jackson) are (to him, at least) cloyingly, nauseatingly loving and over-attentive.  The two boys hatch a crazy scheme to both run away from home and build a house of their own, together, deep in the woods where there parents will be unable to find them.  It seems insane, but the boys go through with it and actually succeed in constructing a ramshackle domicile for themselves out in the woods.  Their new house gets a third house-mate in the form of the skinny, quiet, and very weird boy Biaggio (Moises Arias), who has attached himself to Joe and Patrick.

The film’s bizarre opening scene is extremely memorable.  We see one boy (who we’ll later discover is Biaggio) doing a crazy dance on top of a huge pipeline, while two other two boys (who we’ll later see are Joe and Patrick) provide percussion by banging on the metal pipe.  It’s a gloriously weird scene which really grabbed my attention — how could I not continue watching to determine just what the heck is going on??  It also proved to be a wonderful example of the film’s somewhat comic, very off-kilter tone.

The film is, for the most part, a serious story as the three kids wrestle with growing up, their relationships with their parents, their relationships with girls, and their relationships with one another.  There is also a lot comedy to be found in the misadventures of the boys as their story unfolds.  But my over-all sense of The Kings of Summer is of a film that is delightfully, gloriously weird.  The central conceit — that these boys could actually succeed in building a sort-of house for themselves to secretly live in — is certainly outlandish, and gives the film a sense of being something of a fairy tale.  In my opinion the film’s most endearing quality is the way it dives deeply into the lives of these three boys — Joe, Patrick, and Biaggio — while not shying away from the way in which teenage boys can be very weird and strange!  There isn’t a huge amount of plot in the film, it’s more a series of small vignettes/incidents.  The joy of the film is in getting to know these three boys, and experiencing this powerful, life-changing summer along with them.  All three actors do strong work, bringing the three boys to life.  In particular, Moises Arias creates an incredibly memorable character in the bizarre, lonely Biaggio.  I would suspect that all three of these boys have long careers ahead of them.

It’s always great seeing Parks and Recreation’s Nick Offerman, though he strips away most of his charm and good-humor in playing Joe’s dad, who spends most of the film being a rude scum-bag.  To my delight, though, there are a few moments when Mr. Offerman can’t help bringing a little Ron Swanson humor into the proceedings, particularly in the way he intimidates the young cop played by Thomas Middleditch.  Megan Mullally and Marc Evan Jackson are a hoot as Patrick’s oblivious, lovey-dovey parents, and I also enjoyed Mad Men’s Allison Brie as Joe’s sister and Mary Lynn Rajskub as Thomas Middleditch’s cop partner.

The Kings of Summer is a small-scale film, and it’s certainly a little bit left-of-mainstream.  The story doesn’t unfold according to the usual beats or rhythms of a standard Hollywood film.  But I quite enjoyed it.  This was yet another great coming-of-age story from 2013, an amazing year for coming-of-age stories (see also: The Way Way Back and The Spectacular Now).  This film is original and unique in the way that all kids are.  I’m glad to have seen it.

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