Fairly or not, the Boys' Life-ready coming-of-age story The Kings of Summer will likely be measured alongside Wes Anderson's rapturously received Moonrise Kingdom, which opened around the same time last year. After all, both movies are warm-weather tales of young love and growing up set against the backdrop of a wilderness adventure. But where Moonrise is as impeccably crafted as only a Wes Anderson joint can be, Kings lacks that high-sheen polish. That's not necessarily a bad thing because -- as all of us on the north side of 20 can attest -- adolescence is a messy time and, in its best moments, Kings's rough-edged style beautifully captures that turbulence. At the same time, though, there are a number of moments that are just plain turbulent, which speaks to the disparity in skill sets between a master craftsman like Anderson and a young apprentice like first-time feature filmmaker Jordan Vogt-Roberts.
Chief among the offending moments for me was any scene featuring Biaggio (Moises Arias), the goofball of the three teenage boys at the center of the film, who strains to be to Kings of Summer what McLovin was to Superbad and, going further back, what Bluto was to Animal House -- the oddball of the outfit whose antics are designed to make him the crowd-pleasing scene-stealer. In those cases, however, the tone of the entire film was broad enough to make room for that kind of personality. Here, screenwriter Chris Galletta and Vogt-Roberts start from a more realistic place and that grounded sensibility is thrown out of whack whenever the camera pans over to Biaggio mugging for the camera. (This isn't a slight against Arias, who does exactly what he's been instructed to do; his character just belongs in a different film.)
Fortunately, the filmmakers are savvy enough to realize that a little Biaggio goes a long way and avoid the temptation to force their comic relief into every scene, as the American Pie sequels did with Stifler. Mostly, the focus remains on the friendship between Joe (Nick Robinson) and Patrick (Gabriel Basso), best pals since boyhood who are both fed up with their respective home lives. Joe frequently fights with his gruff widower father Frank (Nick Offerman, rocking a full beard along with his trademark Ron Swanson mustache), while Patrick chafes under the too-watchful eyes of his aggressively dorky Mom and Dad (Megan Mullally and Marc Evan Jackson). After stumbling upon an unused patch of land in the midst of the woods by their unnamed hometown, Joe decides to go all Thoreau and build a tricked-out house where he and Patrick (plus hanger-on Biaggio) can wile away the summer hours doing all the things teenage guys do: hanging out, exploring the woods and -- in Joe's case -- daydreaming about the girl (Erin Moriarty) he's crazy about and who maybe, just maybe, likes him back.
Whenever there's a girl in the mix in one of these adolescent male-bonding stories, broken hearts and shredded friendships are sure to follow. So it goes in The Kings of Summer, but I'll let the movie get into the specifics because it does such a nice job establishing the bond between Patrick and Joe before allowing the bottom to drop out from under them. While Robinson and Basso aren't exactly screen neophytes (the former is a regular on the series Melissa & Joey, and the latter has starred in Super 8 and The Big C), their performances are refreshingly naturalistic for teen actors; between their work and Galletta's well-observed script, the relationship between Joe and Patrick stands as one of the most resonant depictions of teenage boy friendships I can remember since Stand by Me. (Much as I adored the two tween stars of Moonrise Kingdom, there's no question that Anderson carefully stage-managed their work, ensuring they had the same edge of artificiality that permeated the entire film.)
The father/son tension between Frank and Joe is also effectively handled, with Offerman in particular striking notes that skirt around the typical coming-of-age, daddy-just-doesn't-get-me clichés. Unfortunately, the other family relationships don't fare as well; Alison Brie contributes a thankless cameo as Joe's older sister with a too-goofy boyfriend (Eugene Cordero), while Patrick's dorky parents come across like sitcom rejects. Her guest appearances on Parks and Rec are great, but does Mullally really have to appear in every one of Offerman's side projects?) If the whole movie possessed the discipline glimpsed in the Frank/Joe and Joe/Patrick scenes, The Kings of Summer might have earned a place alongside that Rob Reiner-directed classic, as well as Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom. Much like its still-evolving characters, however, Kings is a little uncertain what kind of film it wants to be when it grows up.
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