Like the recent Mud, The Kings of Summer is a tale of feral adolescent pals in search of freedom and adventure. The movies even share essentially the same awkwardly contrived climax. But of the two films, The Kings of Summer is more of a comedy, with a depiction of the eternal war between teen and parent that's downright farcical.
The movie opens with a round of primal drumming, celebrating the autonomy that skinny Joe (Nick Robinson) and beefy Patrick (Gabriel Basso, from Showtime's The Big C) have found as runaways. The moment encapsulates the movie's virtues: freshness, energy and a sense of testosterone-fueled abandon. Then director Jordan Vogt-Roberts rewinds to show what the boys have escaped, and things become predictable.
Joe can't stand his brusque widower father (Nick Offerman), or dad's new girlfriend; Patrick reports his jokey 'rents (Megan Mullally and Marc Evan Jackson) are giving him hives. Both Joe's dad and Patrick's mom razz their sons about sex, a subject usually treated more gingerly by parents of teenagers.
Freshman year ends, and Joe finds little to hold him in the civilized world save his unrequited love for a classmate, Kelly (Erin Moriarty). So Joe takes Patrick to a clearing in a nearby woods, where he proposes they build a sort of full-time clubhouse. Patrick is initially reluctant but soon agrees. The latter-day homesteaders are joined by the uninvited Biaggio (Moises Arias), an odd kid they don't really know.
Posturing as hunter-gatherers, the boys briefly try to live off the land. But their food supply actually relies on a nearby Boston Market, at which Joe apparently has unlimited credit. The clerks at the rotisserie-chicken shop should be able to ID these regular customers, whose refuge is just miles from their homes. Yet somehow the local police can't find the kids, whose disappearance might seem a priority case — if only so the cops can get the obnoxious parents out of their hair.
The emotional crisis arrives when Kelly comes to visit and Joe realizes she's more interested in Patrick than in him. Then the plot switches to man-against-nature mode for the crisis that will reunite the families in time for sophomore year.
Set in the contemporary Cleveland suburbs, The Kings of Summer vaguely recalls the more nostalgic, more self-conscious Moonrise Kingdom. The nature imagery also emulates, with no apparent irony, such significantly more mystical films as Terrence Malick's The New World and Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock.
In form and sensibility, the movie is closer to a sitcom. First-time feature director Vogt-Roberts is a veteran of TV, and he retains its preference for the quick payoff and its over-eager pursuit of yuks. (The latter explains, but doesn't excuse, the movie's reliance on sour gags that turn on racial or ethnic stereotypes.)
Chris Galletta's script also stresses laughs (and occasionally thrills) over story and characters. Joe and Patrick don't really evolve over the course of the movie, and Biaggio can't — he's the sort of running-joke figure who has no underlying psychology.
As played by Robinson, Joe is a bit more plausible. During the movie's most engaging moments, the child's need to become a man is both sweet and pungent. His aspirations are hampered less by his blustering dad than by this underachieving dramedy.