Last summer, a small and quirky comedy snuck into theaters. It was a critical darling, but Safety Not Guaranteed made a pittance at the box office. One of the year's best comedies - and featuring a breakout performance by Aubrey Plaza - it just couldn't find an audience. That may also be the case this summer for a film co-starring Plaza's Parks and Recreation co-star, Nick Offerman.
Though not as daring as Safety, The Kings of Summer is definitely worth your dime. (Please, don't let two original indie comedies die on the vine two years in a row.) Let's be upfront since Parks and Rec has already been name-dropped here: Nick Offerman's not the star of this film. He has some nice scenes, both in his natural comedic state and otherwise, but the star of this show is Nick Robinson.
Robinson plays high school sophomore Joe Toy, who just can't wait another day to be a man. He feels isolated since his mother died and he and Frank (Offerman) almost never see eye-to-eye. Nothing strange about a son and his father hitting a rough patch. But Frank just doesn't know how to reach Joe, one of those kids who's always a half-step ahead of his parents. So the lines of communication are down most of the time.
When summer hits, Joe decides he'll not only run away from home, but he'll build a new home for himself and his friend Patrick (Gabriel Basso), miles away from everything in the middle of the Ohio woods. Unwittingly, the two teens have help from an interloper named Biaggio (Moises Arias, who according to the record books, played Rico on Hannah Montana). Nobody knows much about him at first, but he reveals things as time goes on. For example, when he confides to Joe that he believes he's gay, Biaggio diagnoses his symptom by saying, "My lungs fill up with fluid whenever the seasons change."
"I think that's cystic fibrosis," Joe replies.
That's kind of how the comedy in The Kings of Summer works, incidentally. It's very sly, there are no big punchlines and the scenes don't aim for "The Big Laugh" as their prime directive. They're woven throughout the dialogue, the way really sarcastic teenagers would speak.
To give the proper credit for that, of course, you look to the screenwriter. Chris Galletta has never had a script produced before, and his work prior to this is limited to chipping in jokes as a freelancer for the Letterman show. But he knows how to write for characters, avoiding a very common trap of making every character react the way the writer would react. Joe is obviously different from Biaggio, who's painted to be different, but he's also coming at life from a perspective that's foreign to his father, and Galletta gets that across easily and believably.
Galletta is joined on his maiden voyage by director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, who has done some work for the Internet laff factory, Funny or Die, but is also making his feature film debut. The interesting thing about crossing over from Funny or Die is that those videos almost never have any budget to speak of, and you'd expect that quickly thrown-together look to stand out more on the big screen. What a wonderful surprise that the film actually looks terrific, with rich, colorful and warm cinematography that really gives the summer of these teenagers' lives the right touch.
The look of the film and the writing get some evocative help from the music; Kings of Summer was scored by Ryan Miller, songwriter for the Texas band, Guster, who also scored Safety Not Guaranteed.
All that stuff's a little technical, though, especially for a coming-of-age comedy. We usually like movies like this to come from John Hughes and, well, almost nobody else. Hughes had a way of tapping into real teen angst through some unusual circumstances. Somehow, it worked.
The Kings of Summer does that, too, albeit not as profoundly as Hughes' best work. But here are a couple kids without a real sense of where they belong and a father who can't do it on his own - those are pretty relatable ideas. The living-off-the-grid as a 15-year-old is a bit out there, but what bubbles to the surface is how, at that age, finding your own thing was all that mattered.
Even if The Kings of Summer labors a little bit to find a way out of the forest at the end, it still reminds you of what it was like that summer you wanted to just go find yourself. And that's not something Iron Man or Star Trek can do.