Friday, June 14, 2013

THE KINGS OF SUMMER Is An Indie Comedy Gem


- During summers crowded with pumped-up blockbusters, you also tend to find some real indie gems buried within the rubble. This summer, one of those gems is undoubtedly THE KINGS OF SUMMER - a funny, quirky, heartfelt coming-of-age comedy that is most definitely worth a look.

The movie deals with two teenage boys who are best friends, each of whom is dealing with the usual variety of hormone-driven teen angst, amplified by their uniquely intolerable parents. For Joe (Nick Robinson), it's his dad, Frank (a hilarious Nick Offerman - you know, Ron Swanson!), who drives him insane. Joe's mom died years earlier, and ever since, his dad is prickly, moody, and seemingly at constant odds with Joe. Joe doesn't help things by taking every opportunity to antagonize his dad - like deliberately trying to spoil things with Frank's new girlfriend when she comes over for dinner. Nonetheless, Joe feels confined, held back, tormented, and has a desperate need to get out of his house. When his older sister (Alison Brie of Community fame) comes home to visit from college, Joe practically begs her to take him back with her. Meanwhile, Joe's best friend Patrick (Gabriel Basso) is in a similar boat. He has the classic overbearing, overprotective parents - played to hilarious effect by Marc Evan Jackson and Megan Mullally - and he's had enough of 'em. And so, Joe hatches a crazy idea and convinces Patrick to go along with it: they find a remote spot in the woods, leave home, and build their own ramshackle house where they decide to live for the summer - away from parents, and, well, everyone else.

Even as Joe and Patrick's parents frantically enlist the local police to search for their missing sons, the two are joined by a third classmate - the ultra-eccentric Biaggio (Moises Arias) - a nutball of a kid who is given to random philosophical musings and who resembles a young Mr. Bean. A classic outcast, Biaggio couldn't be happier playing lackey to Joe and Patrick out in the woods. For a while, things seem to be working out for the three teen runaways, living out their own mini Deliverance-esque adventure. But of course, it isn't long before a girl enters the picture, and drives a wedge between the boys. Joe's crush, the newly-single Kelly (Erin Moriarty) crashes the party, and from there, things get complicated.

The movie is an interesting mix of styles and tones. At the center of the film is a classic coming-of-age, humor-with-heart comedy that's John Hughes-ish and Judd Apatow-ian - but with an absurdist flair, mostly thanks to Biaggio's wackiness. Around the periphery of the film, the supporting characters, like Nick Offerman's Frank, or Mary Lynn Rajskub's police captain, seem to share the kind of small-town quirkiness and charm that wouldn't be out of place in Parks & Recreation's Pawnee. Beyond that, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts gives the movie a Terence Malick-esque, picturesque quality. He inserts long, lingering shots of nature into the film - dwelling leisurely on trees, plants, and animals. He includes majestic views of mountaintops, and other shots designed to show the smallness of the characters within the natural world. It reinforces the idea that, despite the quirky comedy, the movie is going for a certain sort of gravitas. Sure, these kids' escape into the woods starts off as a sort-of-silly way to get away from their annoying parents, but it ends up becoming a true back-to-basics social experiment. Even though there's a lot of comedy to be found in the guys' efforts to survive in the wild (i.e. giving up on hunting in favor of trekking out of the woods for fast-food chicken), there's also some real weight to what they are doing. If they're not careful, they could get sick, or hurt, or die.

The tonal shifts can be a little weird sometimes, but mostly, it all comes together pretty well. It helps that the cast is so good. I was particularly impressed with lead actor Nick Robinson - he has a natural charisma and seems exceedingly talented - I can see him becoming a big star. As Joe, he paints a picture of a frustrated teen who is at once a leader but also a very confused kid who is still very much figuring it all out. Gabriel Basso is also very good as Patrick - he is the kid who would have probably been the alpha male jock if not for all of his parent-derived insecurities. I also have to give a shout out to Moises Arias as Biaggio, who seems to arrive out of nowhere as this fully-formed comic personality (though further inspection reveals he was a regular on Hannah Montana - so I guess he's got some experience at playing wacky). But what he does here is really pretty impressive. He's like some odd mix of Mr. Bean, Balki Bartokomous, and Zach Galifianakis. He's a total scene-stealer, and he spouts off some absolutely hilarious lines, and partakes in some laugh-out-loud funny physical comedy. And of course, the main story is only accentuated by having Nick Offerman at his funniest as a key supporting character (some of his bitter rants are just amazing), as well as funny people like Alison Brie, Megan Mullally, Mary Lynn Rajskub, and Kumail Nanjiani in supporting roles.

What keeps the movie from being a classic is that previously-mentioned tonal inconsistency, along with the fact that, at times, it sort of meanders. There are a whole host of character dynamics that don't feel fully explored, and that means that the plot ultimately lacks a ton of depth. When Joe and Patrick fight over Kelly, for example, we don't quite get a sense for the dynamic between them when it comes to girls. Does Patrick usually get the girl, leaving Joe out in the cold? Does Joe have a history of resenting Patrick for being more popular and sociable? Point being: at times, it feels like the movie is more checking off a list of teen drama bullet points, but forgetting to really take us inside the minds and motivations of these characters. And so, while the comedy tends to be the movie's strong point, the drama, while occasionally affecting, doesn't have quite the oomph it should.

Overall though, THE KINGS OF SUMMER is a really strong film - a great portrait of the proverbial teenage wasteland, and a movie filled to the brim with funny characters and moments. Plus, as mentioned, it's surprisingly a very artfully-shot movie - visually, it really takes you into the woods, and gives you a sense of what it'd be like to ditch everything and go back to nature (with the occasion detour, of course, for some fast food and beer). This is not just another teen movie, but a worthwhile flick that has a lot of laughs.

My Grade: B+

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