Published Oct 30, 2013Early in The Kings of Summer, in an effort to contextualize the underlying angst of the central characters and their varying dysfunction, Frank (Nick Offerman) forces his teenage son Joe (Nick Robinson) to stay in for a game night—the first one since the death of his mother—with his new girlfriend. Obviously, Joe's discomfort with the situation, feeling that his mother is being replaced with another woman or somehow disrespected, lends itself to some implicit histrionics. But, after a brief argument that quickly injects the necessary exposition to catch the audience up, this consistently funny coming-of-age story jumps ahead to a family Monopoly game where Joe's sister Heather (Alison Brie) recalls her father calling her a "fear-mongering Chinaman" for not trading B&O Railroad. Frank's new girlfriend responds with, "Oh my God! That's a panic; that's something my great grandfather would say: he's a racist."
This tone, wherein potentially heavy subjects present with idiosyncrasy and are grounded by astute, oft-comic observation of surrounding minutiae (such as arguments about the size of wontons and the comparative ease of killing a disillusioned bear), persists throughout. It serves the basic storyline, which follows Joe and his friends Patrick (Gabriel Basso) and Biaggio (Moises Arias) on a summer adventure, running away from home and living in a makeshift house they've built in the woods, quite well, making unique and invigorating what could easily be banal and thematically redundant.
These boys, old enough to see flaws in the parents but not old enough to understand why social order is so limiting, are indulging in Peter Pan escapism. By eschewing responsibility and callously fleeing from their respective families, they're experimenting with rudimentary anarchic sensibilities. They establish some sense of order in their new abode, promising each other to keep all aspects of civilization (girls, food, family, etc) at bay, ostensibly removing any potential roadblocks from their self-involved quest of id impulse fulfillment.
Obviously, such a Lord of the Flies approach to social evasion will inevitably implode (which it does in a vaguely sexist manner, when a girl gets in the middle of their male bonding), but, before everything becomes didactic, there are endless non-sequiturs and bizarre one-liners distracting from the obviousness of the underlying text. These dynamics and interactions between characters that are as flawed as they are likable, prone to deluded justification and defensiveness just as they compassionate towards the folly of others, ensures the inevitable onslaught of worldly disappointment packs some emotional punch, making their standard adolescent experiences into something more tragic than it otherwise would be.
Despite an overreliance on montage, first-time feature director Jordan Vogt Roberts (Funny or Die Presents...) demonstrates an aptitude for capturing the awkwardness and occasional absurdity of human interaction. He has a knack for capturing the key moments of comedy without lingering on the punch line or patronizing the audience by setting up aesthetic signifiers to make it clear that comedy is intended.
How comedy is handled isn't specifically discussed in the cast and crew commentary included with the DVD, but their candid disposition and tendency to dole out strange anecdotes makes it clear why The Kings of Summer was so effective. Everyone involved was invested in the material and approached their respective characters with heart and a sense of humour. (eOne)