- Three teens take to the woods, Stand By Me-style, in The Kings of Summer.
When I first saw the art for The Kings of Summer - a poster showing three high school age boys leaping off of a precipice to dive in the waters below - I thought of Stand by Me and envisioned a nostalgic adventure story. The trailer for the film made it clear that there was plenty of humor, delivered mostly by the clueless adults in the story, so I adjusted my expectations accordingly.
The actual movie - the runaway boys make a ramshackle home of their own in the forest - is more of a daydream stretching thinly to feature film length, with sketch comedy and montages filling in for the emotional gaps. It's easy to watch and certainly has its pleasures, but key parts are missing.
In the Ohio-filmed production, directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts from a screenplay by Chris Galletta, we meet Joe (Nick Robinson), who lives with his father Frank (Nick Offerman of Parks and Recreation in top form) following the relatively recent death of his mother. Dad is funny, but his strictness rubs Joe the wrong way. Joe's best friend is Patrick (Gabriel Basso), a high school wrestler whose insipid, cooing parents (Megan Mullally and Marc Evan Jackson) would drive anyone crazy. The third figure in the runaway team is Biaggio (Moises Arias), widely dismissed as "the weird kid" and prone to making non sequiturs.
Joe comes to Patrick with a plan: He's found a secluded clearing in the woods nearby and wants to build a house there for the two of them to live. Patrick eventually agrees and the boys use found and nicked objects to assemble a serviceable enough cabin. And then they split. Biaggio joins them, by the way. He's not either teen's friend, but they don't shoo him away. Later, a girl named Kelly (Erin Moriarty), who Joe fancies, becomes a major factor in the story.
The adults notify the authorities (comic cops), the guys become a hot news item, the authorities can't find them although they are just over in the woods (near a chain restaurant) and have visitors coming and going - nevermind, this is a fantasy, a daydream. Suspension of disbelief and all that.
What hurts the movie the most is the dynamics between the boys. Joe and Patrick are best friends - we are told this, but never see any evidence onscreen. They behave more like coworkers than buddies. And then there's Biaggio, introduced as a chronic outsider and kept that way throughout the story. Where is the bonding, the camaraderie, the character development, the richness?
In place of moments that might have fleshed out the relationships, we get montages set to music of the boys doing things in the woods. There are fine moments - I especially liked a scene where Joe and Patrick played drums on a large pipe while Biaggio did a tribal dance atop it. But most of the time the movie made running away and living in the woods look repetitive and dull. It may be that way in real life, but if you're offering an hour and a half escapist fantasy, please be kind enough to create a destination that seems desirable and people we'd actually be interested in knowing.