Henry David Thoreau went to the woods because he wanted to live deliberately. And given the wordy dialogue spoken by some of screenwriter Chris Galletta’s characters, The Kings of Summer seems to nod at Thoreau’s brave desire to cut a broad swath and shave close.
Galletta’s characters, directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts in his first feature film, are themselves just starting to shave. Joe (Nick Robinson) and Patrick (Gabriel Basso) are best friends in the midst of high school and the problems it brings.
Joe has his eye on a real heartbreaker, Kelly (Erin Moriarty), who is dating an upperclassman. At home he deals with an overbearing, grouchy father Frank (Nick Offerman), who is still mourning the loss of his wife. Patrick, meanwhile, wears a boot as he recovers from some injury, and his suffocating parents drown him in nitpicky affection–hardly what a young guy wants.
It all comes to a head when Joe, after a heated game of Monopoly, decides he’s had enough of his father. After stumbling upon a particularly peaceful moonlit clearing in the woods one night he decides he’s ready to move out.
He, Patrick and a recent acquaintance, their eccentric fellow classmate Biaggio (Moises Arias), build a ramshackle house in the woods and run away to it, bearing some clothes, canned goods, a machete and a Braveheart claymore. And a few hundred dollars that they spend on fast food fried chicken to supplement their hunter-gatherer efforts.
What starts as a hearty and playful coming-of-age tale quickly separates itself from similar stories. Chock full of classic Offerman comedy, supplemented by heavy helpings of Megan Mullally and Alison Brie, the adult cast keeps things light amidst the heavier themes of parent-child relationships and running away.
The three boys together have a good chemistry, with Robinson and Basso naturally working the complexities of a best friend relationship and Arias assuring laughs with his off-beat physical humor and stone-faced one-liner delivery. When Moriarty pulls a Yoko and drives the trio apart, it’s genuinely painful, and a surprise for a film that often conforms to expectations.
The cast’s easy interaction lets Vogt-Roberts work his magic presenting the natural beauty of the wooded paradise where the boys live. Their daily activities are shot with artistic close-ups to an indie soundtrack, and the boys relish in every sublime and mean new activity. Not all of which are commendable: The film earned an R rating for numerous teen drinking scenes, in addition to a healthy amount of profanity.
But living truly is so dear that it’s just nice to see the kids being constructive, instead of sitting around texting each other. Thoreau would be proud.