Sundance London Review: The Kings of Summer

Joseph Walsh

Imagine ‘Swallows and Amazons,’ licked with a touch of ‘Lord of the Flies’ and ‘Huck Finn’, mashed-up with Instagram visuals and stripped of any captivating plotting and well-conveyed subtext. What you get is Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ new mawkish lo-fi tale of adolescent hi-jinx over the holidays in The Kings of Summer.

Starring the usually dependable Nick Offerman as a cantankerous single parent to wild child Nick Robinson, we get a middling tale of young-teenage rebellion. Tired of his father’s bullying demeanour due to his wife’s death, Joe (Robinson) decides that it’s time to pack up his bags and retreat to the woods where he will live indefinitely. In tow are his best-bud Patrick (Gabriel Basso) and the unnecessary throwaway oddball, Biaggio (Moises Arias). When settled in the nearby glade, they build a ramshackle, overly stylised, kooky tree house in which they decide to flee the restraints of their parents and live the life of the hunter-gather.

Vogt-Roberts, along with screenwriter Chris Galletta, make a pallid attempt at a dissection of the modern American teenage male in the hope that this indie is worthier than it actually is. The boys don fluffy stubble to appear more masculine, they run around with machetes (and for some reason Braveheart’s sword), quickly realising that their life in the wild will have to be subsidised with fried chicken from a local fast-food joint. There are nods to The Inbetweeners in the set-up and unsubtle winks to Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, leaving it somewhere awkwardly in the middle.

Before long there’s a fissure in this confused Neverland, where all boys just want to grow up, yet at the same time don’t. The group starts to fracture with the arrival of Kelly (Erin Moriarty), the girl Joe has been lusting after. When she decides Patrick is the better choice the group descends into arguments and outbursts of testosterone-fuelled aggression.  All of this leads to a rather obvious message about the teenage desire of wanting to have your cake and eat it - namely to enjoy the pleasure of childhood with the rights (minus the responsibilities) of being a man.

While this is an interesting underlying theme, too much of the plot is lost in convention that allows the story to lull, demonstrated by the necessary dramatic ending. In an attempt to keep our attention we get scenes of the kids’ parents, including Patrick’s mother played by Will and Grace’s Megan Mullally, who offers her always enjoyable hi-pitched quips as a middle-American mom. Whilse these scenes mainly appear to be there to remind us of how embarrassing we thought our parents were when we were in our teens, they provide some of the more interesting moments in the film.

The spirit of The Kings of Summer is willing, but the script is weak, with the cast left with little to actually grapple with in an intelligent manner. At best, this will leave you with a conventional exploration of early adolescence; at worst a prolonged Vine-video rehashing of the standard dull tropes of child-parent conflict as each one grows, presented in a very mind-numbing manner.

Follow Joseph on Twitter: @JosephDAWalsh

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