The house in the woods that Joe builds along with his buddies Patrick and Biaggio, is an endearingly half-assed structure, a ramshackle mock-suburban split-level with a portable toilet door as an entrance and an ill-covered dining room for candle-lit runaway repasts. It’s the kind of place that has more heart than head in its design, and intentions that exceed execution – and it’s the perfect metaphor for the movie built around it.
Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts and written by Chris Galletta, The Kings of Summer is a Sundance-kissed movie about three suburban malcontents who pull a Walden just a few kilometres from their family homes and build an alt-sanctuary where they can pretend to be the self-sufficient men they aren’t quite yet, in the process learning as much about the instruction manual-free zone of growing up as rudimentary carpentry. If life is indeed a house, upkeep is a bitch.
In its opening passages, as we are introduced to the testy-but-needy Joe (Nick Robinson) and his equally testy-but-needy widower father Frank (Nick Offerman), Vogt-Roberts’s movie holds the promise of an amiably eccentric, deadpan teen comedy, in which unhappy kids embark on an impossible journey to grow up to be anything but their unhappier parents. As played by the bearishly grumpy Offerman (Parks and Recreation), Frank is the kind of dad who’s given up on all the niceties of parenthood but none of the rules. When Nick decides he’s endured one too many mandatory family Monopoly sessions, you understand the spark he feels when he senses the wonder of a moonlit glade where a better home might be built.
Enlisting the aid of his overparented cohort Patrick, (Gabriel Basso) and attracting the moth-like interest of the unblinkingly weird Biaggio (Moises Arias), Nick assembles his DIY abode with rather alarming dispatch, leaving the rest of the movie without much to do but let the rain and disappointment seep in as the boys are body-checked by reality: Hunting is a lot harder than take-out, girls still fall for the wrong guys, and hanging out all day in your underwear is one seriously fleeting form of freedom.
Because it begins with such off-centre promise – especially acute when the scowling Offerman is lumbering around – and because Vogt-Roberts’s style indulges passages of stoner, neo-hippie lyricism that briefly suggest the teen movie Terrence Malick might have made, The Kings of Summer plunges its viewers into the same sense of crushing disappointment the boys feel, but much sooner than the movie can wisely afford. Why not prolong the actual building of the house so that the reckoning of the challenge becomes Nick’s ultimate understanding of the hardship of becoming a man, and so the movie isn’t forced to pretend that these kids are the subject of a frantically implausible police search when we know they’re only a couple of clicks from their real bedrooms – which, after all, is part of what makes the premise funny. They’re never that far from the family fridge.
The foundation of a much better movie is buried somewhere beneath the debris that’s too quickly piled on to The Kings of Summer, but there’s something at least strangely organic in its abandonment of a sturdier architectural project. When faced with the real responsibility of creating something lasting and solid, it, like Nick and company, gives up and goes home.