Review by Pamela Zoslov
and Wes Anderson's MOONRISE KINGDOM, but most are like THE KINGS OF SUMMER, a limp adolescent-rebellion adventure shot in northeast Ohio. The film, produced by local-born Tyler Davidson and directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts, is about a trio of high school boys who run away from home and build a house in the woods. The film is technically impressive, with attractive cinematography and kinetic editing, and it's fun to spot recognizable locations – a bridge in Berea, a park in Chagrin Falls, a Parma Boston Market restaurant. But it is hoist on the petard of Chris Galletta's tone-deaf screenplay, whose attempts at clever repartee fall flat..
Joe Toy (Nick Robinson), the improbably named 15-year-old at the center of the story, lives with his dad Frank (Nick Offerman of TV's Parks and Recreation), a churlish, sarcastic widower who punishes, chides, humiliates and criticizes Joe, who responds by habitually calling the police to report his dad for fabricated offenses. Joe's best friend and sidekick, Patrick (Gabriel Basso), is also fed up with his folks (Megan Mullally and Mark Evan Jackson), who dote on and embarrass him, which has caused him to break out in hives. Joe gets the idea to build a house in the woods where he, Patrick and Biaggio (Moises Arias), the weird kid who follows them around, can live parent-free and, he says, “be our own men.” We are meant to believe that the three teens, with stolen construction materials and know-how acquired from library books, can erect a habitable, albeit artfully ramshackle, split-level dwelling. How did they acquire and transport the materials, when they're too young to drive? Where did Joe and friends acquire those mad drafting and construction skills?
The story's many implausibilities could be overlooked if the story of the teens' sylvan sojourn had some substance. Mostly, the boys are shown in music-video style vignettes, set to twee songs. They hunt and gather food (which they ultimately get from a conveniently placed Boston Market), dive in slow motion into the creek, drum in rhythmic “Iron John” ritual style on a drainage pipe, atop which their mascot, Biaggi, does a goofy dance. They host an unlikely dinner party in their new digs, complete with Patrick playing the violin, Joe accompanying on guitar (more amazing talents revealed!) and Biaggi dancing his silly dance. The teens' woodland retreat could have provided a platform for interesting revelations, but Galletta's script doesn't offer any. We know scarcely more about Joe and Patrick (let alone the oddball Biaggi) by the movie's end than we did at the start, except that Joe grows facial hair remarkably abundant for a 15-year-old yet emerges from a month in the woods with a seemingly fresh haircut. Joe's character is discussed only in one of the movie's better scenes, which has the runaways' worried dads sharing a fishing boat. Frank acknowledges that his son has been hard to control since the death of his mother, who had a calming effect on the kid.
If only because the movie's attempts at humor are so uncomfortable, a late-act detour into drama is welcome. The trio's idyll is disrupted by a fight over a girl, the patrician-blond Kelly (Erin Moriarty), and Joe is left in the woods to fend for himself. At one point he's so mad with hunger (or maybe inspired by the memoirs of by Watergate conspirator G. Gordon Liddy?) that he eats a live mouse. He gets to prove his manhood (or something like that) in a confrontation with a poisonous snake before achieving rapprochement with his dad.
The film inhabits the form of the coming-of-age story without providing its necessary literary foundation. In The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger's artful writing reveals why Holden Caulfield, whose brother died and who's just been expelled from yet another prep school, wants to shake off the “phony” adults and strike out on his own. In MOONRISE KINGDOM, it's understandable why the young protagonist, an unloved orphan, wants to create his own domain. THE KINGS OF SUMMER (originally titled Toy's House) would have been more interesting if it let us inside its troubled protagonist's mind. 2 out of 4 stars.