Joe Toy (Nick Robinson) is fed up with his life at home. His older sister is moving away and he can’t bear the thought of spending the whole summer at home alone with his father (Nick Offerman), who we first meet mercilessly chastising Joe for masturbating in the shower. Ever since his mother died his dad hasn’t been the same – to the extent that Joe regularly calls the police to report him as a missing person. Their comic interplay is fantastic, but the characters are clearly having a lot less fun around each other then the audience are watching them – so Joe decides to run away.
His best friend Patrick (Super 8’s Gabriel Basso) has the opposite problem with his parents. They’re too nice, too overbearing. It doesn’t take much for Joe to convince Patrick to join him on his summer escapade, while another strange kid called Biaggio (Moises Arias) tags along seemingly just for the hell of it. The trio decide to literally build a new life for themselves in the middle of the woods and set about constructing a makeshift house from salvaged and stolen materials. They hunt for food (largely unsuccessfully), wash in the river, and grow the manliest beards that they can muster. They’re living on the lam and there are no adults around to tell them what to do. Teenage bliss.
They make for a fun bunch to be around. Biaggio is basically the weirdest, lovable little bastard we’ve seen on screen this side of Superbad’s McLovin, and he steals scene after scene. In fact, he might just be the film’s secret weapon. But Joe’s a winning protagonist, too, despite being typically angst-ridden and overly invested in a potential romance with his classmate Kelly (Erin Moriarty). That’s typical teenage boy behaviour though, and armed with a cheeky James Franco-esque squinty grin and bags full of charisma, Robinson turns even the least desirable of teenage traits into something appealing as well as identifiable. There’s also something admirably authentic about his relationship with Patrick. It’s the kind of friendship that contains all the little moments that have you flashing back to your own childhood in recognition, and whenever a coming-of-age movie elicits that sort of response then you know it’s doing something right.
What could have been a knockabout comedy in the vein of the aforementioned Superbad actually takes shape as a sweet (but still funny) coming-of-age tale with its heart firmly in the right place. Structurally, though, a little like the boys’ hastily erected abode, the film’s a little wobbly. Some scenes, particularly after the boys escape for the summer, feel a little disjointed, and there’s a sense that a greater degree of fluency may have been sacrificed in the editing suite. That’s not always a huge problem because by and large the individual scenes are a delight to watch and filled with effortlessly likeable protagonists, but it does hamper the always delicate task of accurately portraying the characters’ literal coming of age. The character arcs aren’t quite as smooth or as well-paced as they should be, which is frustrating given how well-crafted the individuals are to begin with.
So it’s not quite up there with recent triumphs in the genre, Adventureland and The Perks of Being a Wallflower immediately come to mind, nor the classic film to which it also owes a large debt, Stand By Me. But The Kings of Summer is also bolstered and distinguished by the decision to keep cutting back to the boys’ families throughout their ordeal. That means there are regular opportunities for Offerman and Megan Mullally to flex their not inconsiderable comedic muscles, and for the likes of Alison Brie, Eugene Cordero and Kumail Nanjiani to pop up in the odd scene and shine. It provides a nice bit of balance that keeps the funny and heartwarming moments in equal measure, so even though there are holes to be picked, it’s still a hugely enjoyable watch.