Spoilers! This review/discussion contains some mild spoilers.
I suppose this could be a defence of The Kings of Summer, but unlike the Tideland defence the only thing this film needs defending from is itself.
Released in 2013 and premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in that year, it received wild critical acclaim and while the full release did not gather as much praise, it is still a pretty well regarded little film with 76% on Rotten Tomatoes and 61 on Metacritic, which indicated a generally favourable attitude towards the young actors and the first-time director and writer involved with the project. What more therefore needs to be said about this film? Just another coming-of-age comedy (Stand-By-Me-esque) whose whimsical charm gives it a uniqueness. Well, I think coming-of-age is the wrong genre to classify it under, it's more like nostalgia for a simple teenage boyness. I was not surprised to discover the director has worked mostly in short films on the internet, as the aesthetic attitude and especially it's own attention span is obviously influencing this film.
Anyway, here's what I want to describe. What works about this film are the honest glimpses of life as a teenage boy in the 90's in the States, but there's enough similarities for me to recognise many things there too. So, when it's good it reminds us a little of our own boyhoods and the stupidity therein (punching each other in the arm, for example), whether there is anything similarly female there I cannot say, but I doubt it very much (although the only central female part is played reasonably well, considering she's just there to split the friends up and force something like a plot). I say it is a nostalgia for a 90's boyness rather than coming-of-age because although the boy's ages are given in the film (15 years old) it really doesn't seem fixed. Their age is incidental, what is important is that they are young, but not children either. It is the series of visually crisp vignettes that is the emphasis rather than developing a specific time and place from which the character's are shown to grow. For me, the characters act variously between the ages of 12-18 and thus it seems like a collection of the writer's own memories about his childhood. The time of the setting suffers in much the same manner, as some point it seems early 90's (Street Fighter on the console, hooray!) and then the characters are talking on phones that cannot be any earlier than 2002 (at a guess). Setting and character specification then, are not the important features here. Additionally, the 'plot' seems straight out of screen writing 101 and although obviously telegraphed from the start (the main character has a 'dead mom' trope) it still doesn't quite manage to fit within all the goofing around and general fun that is going on. At it's heart this film is primarily a comedy and not one that finds itself too concerned with realism, even the realism of it's own nostalgia.
|The three 'Kings of Summer' building their dream house.|
The comedy works fairly well, there are some genuinely funny moments, well acted (the 'adult' characters are especially good seasoned comedy actors, who really take a bite out of the script) and there's enough of them that the not-so-funny moments slip past pretty quickly. The comedy character Biaggio (played by Moises Arias) has a number of funny lines and is amusingly endearing if you forget the lack of anything like a character background, other than amusing 'ethnic' weirdness. Indeed, the non-white characters (all 3) are all comic relief; Biaggio himself, Joe's sister's Latino boyfriend, and the Indian Chinese-food delivery guy (ha ha!). That and the fact the main characters are two middle-class white boys lacking in anything like real problems might distance some people. Joe does have a dead mother, but his father cares for him, he does get 'bullied' at school (once, we see his shirt ripped off) but he is also able to talk the girl he likes, and gets invited to parties. Patrick, his friend, is a popular athlete who's only failing is that his parents are embarrassingly smothering towards him, also he has to wear a boot on his foot because he, previous to the film, broke his foot (i.e. not a permanent disfigurement, just a 'thing'). Both families are well-off and the boys aren't in any trouble prior to running away, so when the film tries to force something like real emotion or conflict, it is very jarring.
While watching, I could't help but think that it would have worked better as a TV show. This is because, edited as it is, it feels like we're missing some actual development and are always joining the scene after several previous situations have been passed over. It just cuts in, nothing is explained, and then punch-line, scene over. At the time I wondered if it was this way because the director had relied on a lot of improvisation from his actors, but I now think it was just scripted like this and that this represents an attempt (albeit a failed one) to convey a youthful free-spirited-ness, but that this aesthetic comes from montage heavy short film technique. At any rate, the film reminds me of the British comedy TV show 'The Inbetweeners' that deals with much the same type of group dynamic; all teenage boys, all idiotic and pathetically funny, the friendship between the 'main' characters and the disruption of girls to that friendship, and the interaction between the adult world of the parents and the boy's own outcast existence. 'The Kings of Summer' TV show, would have much the same feel, although replace the British sourness with the sort of cheery surrealism found in 'Arrested Development' and as a TV show this would give the naturally funny actors some time to find and develop their characters beyond their rather two-dimensional stock.
The mixed bag dynamic of this film is best emphasised with the totally unnecessary Terence-Malicky cinematography of nature we receive, which although quite pretty seems totally at odds with everything else that's going on in the film, both the comedy and the false emotional seriousness. Something I enjoyed about the boy's escape to the 'wild' is that we are shown they aren't very far at all from civilisation. Indeed, they are able to go shopping for supplies regularly and it's possible to get there in a morning's walk, indeed, nothing about it seems to be that rugged or remote and apart from the plot necessary snake they are not in any natural danger. Even the snake-bitten Biaggio is easily taken to hospital in plenty of time to be saved, something accomplished with no real risk or providing anything like a conclusive character development. In short, it doesn't feel like a natural environment at all, more like a comedy stage. Nature is purely incidental here. Compare this with Into The Wild for example.
All this reminds me of my own boyhood and building a much less impressive 'fort' when I was twelve during my school lunch breaks with my friends. However, I suppose there isn't much (if any) wilderness in the UK whereas there is more than enough to get lost in the USA, which makes me question the realism of their ages (15, just to remind you). If I was going to run away and 'be a man' living in the wild at the age of fifteen, I'd get on a bus and head into the actual wilderness, not just the woods near my house, that is much more like the behaviour of younger children (young teenagers at the very best) rather than boys who are very nearly men. Still, I suppose that level of realism isn't the main concern here as I've mentioned earlier.
|A 90's video-game kitsch poster for The Kings of Summer|
To conclude, although this film is neither as clever nor as unique as it thinks it is and would've probably worked better as a comedy serial (like The Inbetweeners), still it is an interesting film, one that is worth seeing and was worth making. I'd rather something like this was made than Transformers 4 or anything similarly vacuous. So, I hope the director continues to refine an individual voice, that the screenwriter takes chances on his own ideas and doesn't fall into cliched safety, and that the young actors continue to show their promise. Perhaps this is the thing that we find so appealing and lures us back time and again to nostalgia of our childhood, when things were all promise, untested and full of potential.