In an age where Franchise is king, and studios are scared to do much else but rest on their laurels, it is refreshing to see a film with enough Heart to fill a 70’s girl rock section at your local used record shop.
That film is The Kings of Summer.
Like most low-budget indie films, it’s not perfect. It doesn’t approach perfect. But then, a film’s job isn’t to be perfect. At least not a film like this.
The Kings of Summer is charming, touching, and genuinely funny, and that’s more than can be said about most movies that probably cost 50 times what Kings cost to make.
Nick Robinson stars as Joe Toy, a boy growing increasingly unable to handle life at home with his strict single father Frank, played by the always hilarious Nick Offerman.
Joe’s best friend Patrick, played by Gabriel Basso, is equally as frustrated with his parents, whose general dorkiness and intrusive disposition are completely relatable, if a tad over-the-top.
One day, Joe encounters a clearing in the woods, and has a vision to build his own house there to live for the summer.
After some convincing, the less adventuresome Patrick agrees to come along, and the two boys, joined by the completely bizarre social outcast Biaggio, played by Moises Arias, run away from home and take to the woods to build a house.
While the initial freedom is exhilarating, personal issues between the friends begin to boil, and what was supposed to be a stress-free Summer quickly turns sour.
Robinson and Basso give remarkably honest performances for such young, unproven actors. Their ability to be both snarky and sincere is impressive.
The film’s major turning point is made so incredibly heartbreaking and relatable by Robinson’s proclivity for subtlety. The best part of the film is played out in complete silence and near-motionlessness. That’s a tough feat to accomplish.
Arias, best known for playing a typical Disney one-note annoying side character on Hannah Montana, is hilarious (if not still a tad one-note) as the wry one-line machine Biaggio (who confuses Cystic Fibrosis for homosexuality and “never really saw himself as having a gender.”)
Offerman plays a character a bit too similar to his (undeniably amazing) Ron Swanson persona on Parks and Recreation, while Megan Mullally and Marc Evan Jackson bust out perfect comedic performances as Patrick’s parents.
Cameos from Alison Brie, Kumail Nanjiani, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Eugene Cordero, and Thomas Middleditch round out what is essentially a Los Angeles comedy nerd’s fantasy cast (I know we’re a small niche, but it’s nice to be nodded at).
The small-scale story is set in the 90s, which seems to serve only to escape our present crackhead-like dependence on technology (would kids really take to the woods these days?). Otherwise, the period-ness of the film is generally lost.
A lot of the humor comes from asides as opposed to from the story, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does separate the drama from the comedy in a slightly unnatural way (take out the jokes—which are great—and it would still feel like a complete movie; Contrast that with a comedy like Anchorman).
But The Kings of Summer is a fresh take on the "Coming of Age" tale. Sure, it can be described as Stand By Me meets Lord of the Flies, but really it stands out in that Kings relies very little on nostalgia and romanticism, and more on realism and cynicism.
Overall, The Kings of Summer is one of those indie films that does exactly what an indie film should do. It doesn’t reach too high. It’s a simple story that’s well-written and well-acted, and a delightful way to spend 90 minutes.