“The Kings of Summer,” the feature directorial debut of Jordan Vogt-Roberts, is a lot of things. A coming-of-age story, a drama with very strong scenes, and a comedy with a lot great laughs, many of which come from the deadpan humour of Nick Offerman of TV’s “Parks and Recreation.” The result is a tonally mixed story that sometimes veers into satire, yet manages to remain entertaining throughout. It is not perfect, but it is certainly a solid debut.
Set in quiet rural American town, the movie tells the story of Joe Toy (Nick Robinson) a young man on the verge of adulthood who cannot wait to get over that verge. His sister Heather (Allison Brie) has been gone from the house for a while now and his mother has passed away leaving him with his father Frank (Nick Offerman) who is not up to the task of being a single father. Frank is certainly not a bad man, but Joe cannot stand his sarcasm or his bossiness.
One day Joe has enough and comes up with a crazy idea: along with a his best friend Patrick (Basso) he will run away from home and they will build their own home in a clearing in the woods. Patrick also cannot stand his parents (Megan Mullally and Marc Evan Jackson), who he sees as overbearing. Although he thinks this is insane, Patrick eventually agrees with Joe’s plan and joins him in the woods along with Biaggio (Moisés Arias) a strange little kid they met at a party. They ask him to join not so much because he is resourceful, but because there is no telling what that kid might do if they tell him to go away. Seriously, Biaggo arrives in the woods with his own machete. Who keeps a machete at home?
Surprisingly the boys do manage to build a home for themselves out in the wild with stolen tools and bits and pieces of whatever they can get their hands on. The result is far from a five-star resort, but it has a certain charm. With their swords and books on how to survive in the woods, the three of them try to become men, or as close as they can get to the rugged idea of being men. They set out to hunt and kill their food, but eventually decide to just buy the food when they realize they have actually built their house minutes away from a chicken restaurant. Then of course like real men they eventually fight over the one thing all men fight over: a girl (Erin Moriarty).
Joe’s and Patrick’s reasons for running away may seem unreasonable since their parents are not horrible people. In fact compare them to actually bad parents and they come off as complete saints. Yet any kid who has ever felt disrespected by their dad or felt their mother only sees them as a little boy will identify with their desire to pack up and go if only to take a break from reality. As for Biaggio I can only guess, but he probably feels right at home in the wild.
As single dad Frank, Offerman is just as funny as on “Parks and Recreation” yet is believable as a struggling father. His character often says things that are funny to the viewer, but hurtful to the characters who hear them. Sarcasm and hurtful comments are funny until they are aimed at you. As his son, Nick Robinson gives a nuanced performance, starting off as a kid living in his own head and eventually gets to stretch out once he is living in his own house.
Many scenes in “The Kings of Summer” will make you laugh and some more dramatic ones will keep your eyes on the actors’ performance. It’s an odd mix, but a good start for a new director.
(“The Kings of Summer” is out on DVD and Blu-Ray and is available on Netflix.)