Delightful "Kings Of Summer" Worthy Of Buzz

“The Kings Of Summer” (formerly known as “Toy’s House”) was one of the darlings of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, speedily scooped up by CBS Films and given a primo summer release date. It’s not always prudent to read into festival response and release date jockeying, but in this case, the pre-release goodwill was well deserved. “Kings” is one of the most electric films of the year to date, a deft mix of comedy and drama, and an occasionally profound examination of what it’s like to be a teenager – particularly a teenage boy. And while it openly evokes the spirit of pictures like “Stand By Me” and “Moonrise Kingdom,” it scores originality points in the shading of its characters and its utter fearlessness in going for the big laughs.

Written by Chris Galletta and directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts, the film follows a summer in the life of three teenage friends – Joe (Nick Robinson), Patrick (Gabriel Basso), and Biaggio (Moises Arias). Joe lives at home with his single, domineering father, Frank (Nick Offerman), all the while feeling the beck and call of adulthood and autonomy in the middle distance. Patrick’s folks (played by Megan Mullally and Marc Evan Jackson) are even more controlling, unknowingly embarrassing their son at every opportunity. Biaggio, a diminuitive, quirky kid is the hanger-on of the group, inimitably unpredictable but loyal to a fault.

Once school lets out for the summer, the trio happens upon a wooded plot of land and Joe has an epiphany – they should build a house and live there for the summer – without telling their parents. For being so remarkably simple, the narrative is surprisingly engrossing, giving each actor room to breathe while never coming across as pedantic or plaintive. Even a love triangle between Joe, Patrick, and their friend, Kelly (Erin Moriarty), feels believable rather than trite. It would be so easy for this kind of film to go off the rails, but it manages to avoid most potential pitfalls.

The first reel of the picture is the most problematic, but one viewing wasn’t enough for me to pinpoint the problem – does the film require some time to find its footing, or was I not immediately hip to its rhythms? Either way, it’s a bit manic in its early going, and it might have been wise for the filmmakers to forgo the some early laughs for larger payoffs later on. But these quibbles fade away once we get to know the characters, and the entire cast does incredible work. Robinson is a relative newcomer, but his poise as Joe Toy is considerable, and the film is his to carry. That it works as well as it does is largely due to his performance.

Offerman (best known for his work on NBC’s “Parks And Recreation”) is as delightful as usual, bringing an important mix of gruffness and likability to an otherwise unsympathetic character. Yet, as good as Robinson and Offerman are, Arias ends up stealing the film with a wonderfully odd performance that leaves us wondering if his character isn’t native to Earth. The character of Biaggio is earmarked as comic relief from the get-go – really, his strangeness couldn’t be more telegraphed – but it’s not a detriment because it his laughs are well-earned. In the hands of lesser filmmakers, Biaggio is a character that could weigh down an entire movie, but instead, we giggle at his every appearance, waiting to see what he’ll do next.

Thematically, “Kings” is as rich as its characters, running the gamut of teenage emotions as well as last year’s terrific “The Perks Of Being A Wallflower.” Friendships are tested, childhoods are rebuffed, and hearts are smashed into a thousand pieces – but never at the expense of good storytelling. The creative team goes to great lengths to avoid clichés, and their visual sensibilities help to maintain an air of untrodden ground. The first act is sitcom-esque, shot tightly in a way that enhances Joe’s feelings of claustrophobia. When the boys ultimately run away from home, the film opens up and the cinematography often borders on lush, adding another layer to the picture.

Wistfulness is hard to pull off on film, made even more difficult by sharing the spotlight with moments of laugh out loud comedy. But “The Kings Of Summer” is that rare bird that successfully walks the line between genres, all the while hitting various crowd-pleasing beats and allowing a great cast to showcase their abilities. Whether or not it hits at the box office, word of mouth will be strong and generations of movie fans will be enjoying it for a long time to come. Recommended.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: May 31, 2013 (limited)
Studio: CBS Films
Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Screenwriter: Chris Galletta
Starring: Nick Robinson, Gabriel Basso, Moises Arias, Nick Offerman, Megan Mullally, Alison Brie, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Erin Moriarty, Marc Evan Jackson, Thomas Middleditch, Tony Hale
MPAA Rating: R (language and some teen drinking)